One of the largest Franciscan religious orders, founded on the teachings of humble St. Francis of Assisi more than 800 years ago, is on the brink of bankruptcy after admitting some of its monks embezzled funds from the order’s accounts.
Italian newsmagazine Panorama recently reported that tens of millions of dollars were missing from the Order of Friars Minor and had been invested in offshore companies.
Panorama also reported that Swiss prosecutors had seized Franciscan accounts in Switzerland because the account holders allegedly had invested in illegal operations that could include arms and drug trafficking.
Brother Michael Perry, an American and the leader of the order, said an internal inquiry begun in September revealed “a number of questionable financial activities that were conducted by friars entrusted with the care of the patrimony of the order.”
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In a letter posted on the order’s website, Perry said the order was in “grave — and I underscore grave — financial difficulty with a significant burden of debt.”
The letter, addressed to all friars, said the order’s general treasurer, Giancarlo Lati, had resigned. The letter gave no further details.
Lati also reportedly was responsible for managing Il Cantico, a luxury Rome hotel owned by the order, with a website that promises to use profits to help the poor, street kids and AIDS centers.
“Because of the scope and magnitude of these activities, they have placed the financial stability of the General Curia at grave risk,” Perry wrote.
“The systems of financial oversight and control for the management of the patrimony of the order were either too weak or were compromised, thus limiting their effectiveness to guarantee responsible, transparent management. We have initiated steps to address these concerns.”
The scandal has shaken the order inspired by its founder’s devotion to poverty and prayer. It is active in 110 countries and had more than 14,000 members.
Perry, an Indianapolis native, was appointed to lead the order last year. He succeeded Jose Rodriguez Carballo, whom Pope Francis appointed to lead the Vatican’s body for religious orders, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life.
Perry made it clear the scope of the scandal was not restricted to monks.
“These questionable activities also involve people who are not Franciscan but who appear to have played a central role,” he wrote.
Francis instigated a massive cleanup of the Vatican bank and a shake-up of the Holy See’s financial administration after he was elected in March 2013.
“I realize that many of you will be seriously disappointed and discouraged by this situation,” Perry said in the letter. “It will also raise many questions for which you have a right to a response.”
The Order of Friars Minor is one of several branches of the Franciscan order founded by St. Francis in the Italian town of Assisi in 1209.