VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Saturday tapped a veteran Vatican diplomat to be his top aide, replacing the Holy See's secretary of state who in recent years increasingly became a divisive figure in a church hierarchy mired in embarrassing scandal and financial probes.
The Vatican announced that Archbishop Pietro Parolin, 58, an Italian and former deputy foreign minister at the Vatican, on Oct. 15 will assume the post held since 2006 by Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. The cardinal will remain in the position until then, giving Parolin, currently serving as papal envoy to Venezuela, time to prepare for his new duties as the Vatican's No. 2 official.
Benedict XVI, who retired as pontiff earlier this year, had relied heavily on Bertone as one of the few advisers in his inner circle. Bertone, a Genoa archbishop, had served the German pope for many years at the Vatican.
The Vatican noted that Bertone, 78, was retiring under a church law that requires cardinals who hold top curia posts to offer their resignations when they turn 75. Benedict had kept him in place, reportedly to the irritation of a rival faction of Vatican bureaucrats loyal to Bertone's predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former longtime secretary of state.
A scandal during the latter years of Benedict XVI's papacy involving the theft of papal documents and embarrassing revelations of alleged corruption and power plays at the Vatican was widely seen as aiming to discredit Bertone. Some believe it also was one reason that Benedict stepped down in February, the first pope in 600 years to resign.
Most of the documents, leaked by Benedict's butler to an Italian journalist, were of interest only to Italians, a reflection of centuries of dominance and intrigue by Italians in the Vatican. The purloined papal papers concerned relations between Italy and the Vatican, and a few local scandals and personalities. The main aim of the disclosures apparently was to make Bertone seem incompetent, unable to control the curia and unable to protect Benedict, a theologian with little apparent skill for navigating the political maneuvering around him.
Pope Francis will hold a special audience on Oct. 15, the Vatican said, "in order publicly to thank Cardinal Bertone for his faithful and generous service to the Holy See."
Parolin, when deputy foreign minister, shuttled between Rome and Hanoi in a partly successful bid to improve decades of thorny relations between the Vatican and the communist leadership of Vietnam. In 2009, Parolin told reporters in Hanoi that the Holy See and Vietnam had created a "good basis" for eventually establishing diplomatic relations. After the Philippines, Vietnam has one of Asia's largest communities of Catholics.
The incoming No. 2, a native of northeast Italy, began his diplomatic career at the Vatican in 1986, and served in papal missions in Nigeria and Mexico. He was posted to Venezuela as papal nuncio in 2009.
In a statement, Parolin pledged that he would give Francis his "complete availability to work with him and under his guidance for the greater glory of God, the good of the holy Church and the progress and peace" so humanity might find "reasons to live and to hope."
It was during Bertone's tenure that the curia was rocked by financial probes, including investigations by Italian prosecutors suspecting that the Vatican bank was being used for money laundering.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Bertone would continue to keep other responsibilities he holds, including heading a commission of cardinals monitoring Vatican bank operations. Last year, the bank's president, an Italian banker considered close to Bertone, was ousted from his post in a bid to reform the Vatican's troubled financial operations.
In an interview published on Aug. 3 with a Venezuelan newspaper, Parolin hailed Francis' election as a "miracle" sweeping away "unjustified" pessimism associated with Benedict's tenure. Parolin also told Ultimas Noticias that Benedict had done "everything possible to reform the church," citing what he called his "great commitment against pedophilia."
Anticipating Parolin's appointment, SNAP, a U.S.-based group which campaigns to protect children from pedophile clergy, said Friday that he would not be the kind of independent-minded outsider the church needs to fight sex crimes.
"We see no evidence that Parolin is such a person," said Barbara Dorris of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
The Catholic Church has been rocked by scandals in the United States, Europe and elsewhere involving bishops who shuffled pedophile priests from parish to parish for years, and SNAP has demanded that complicit church hierarchy step down.
Francis on Saturday also confirmed that other prominent officials will remain in their current positions, including Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, Benedict's longtime secretary and confidant. That seemed to indicate that, at least for now, Francis wasn't set on drastically overhauling the hierarchy he inherited when elected pontiff in March, becoming the first pope from Latin America.
AP reporter John Rice contributed from Mexico City.