No evidence has been released to support allegations reported in Italy that a large payment was made to Australia.
Even the staunchest George Pell supporters conceded the claims were wild: could the cardinal have been framed as a child sex abuser to settle a Vatican feud?
“I know. It sounds incredible,” Andrew Bolt told his audience on Sky News this week.
“I’m not a big fan of conspiracy theories. This sounds like ... a Dan Brown thriller.
“But this is, in fact, exactly what Pell and his many supporters in the Vatican have always suspected, and could never prove.”
Almost a week after the claims were made, that proof remains elusive.
Three Italian newspapers reported allegations that Cardinal Giovanni Becciu, who resigned under a cloud last month, made a $1.1 million payment to undisclosed recipients in Australia to secure a conviction against Pell, who he had clashed with over attempts to reform the Vatican’s finances.
Becciu denies he made such a payment or any other wrongdoing.
“I categorically deny interfering in any way in the trial of Cardinal Pell,” he said in a statement.
Pell supporters say the reports underline a suspicion about how one of his accusers was able to afford a lucrative property that was purchased after he made allegations against Pell.
Bolt said on Sky he had seen property records to back the claim.
Another person who was close to the case told Guardian Australia that someone who had been investigating the purchase of the property for weeks had his house burgled on Monday, and nothing but the documents were taken.
Throw in the supposed involvement of the mafia in funneling the cash allegedly stolen by Becciu , and the shadowy demise of several other Vatican financial reformists, and Pell’s supporters had found their grassy knoll.
But the property records were not forthcoming, nor was any other detail about where the property was or when it was supposed to have been purchased. Property searches undertaken by Guardian Australia also failed to uncover anything suspicious.
The Italian newspapers that published the claims have not revealed any subsequent evidence of a wire transfer to Australia.
The most reputable of these papers, the Corriere della Sera, did not respond to requests for comment from Guardian Australia. Neither did the Vatican press office.
And as the claims swirled around the world, those who had accused Pell of abuse, and their families, felt their pain anew.
“If these bribe allegations are inferring that I have in any way benefited financially, I am beyond offended,” the father of the second alleged choirboy victim in Pell’s cathedral trial told Guardian Australia.
“My wife and I are driving around in a car that is 21-years-old, we are renting a National Rental Affordability Scheme home and living on a pension.
“This is absolute stupidity and these allegations should never have seen the light of day.”
The man’s son died of a heroin overdose in 2014, aged 30. His father says he never spoke to his parents about being abused. But his father now believes that was the reason his son turned to drugs. He has commenced a civil claim against Pell and the church.
“I have certainly not received any money to give evidence against George Pell and any suggestion that the surviving complainant has is just ludicrous.
“Anyone who knows this man [the complainant who brought the case against Pell] and his character knows there is absolutely no chance he would have been involved in such underhanded tactics,” he said.
“Given what the surviving complainant has been through, I can only imagine how distressing it’s been for him to hear of these baseless allegations. He has the utmost integrity and is an honourable member of our community.”
Lisa Flynn, Shine Lawyers national practice manager, who represents the man, said the claims were outrageous and unfounded.
“These faceless people driving this conspiracy theory need to provide the evidence and name the people or person who apparently received the money, rather than casting the net. That money could have gone anywhere in Australia. It is mere speculation without any facts.
“These allegations are cowardly compared to the brave sexual abuse survivor who came forward to police following the funeral of his friend and went through hell in an attempt to obtain justice for that friend.”
Flynn echoed the comments of Pell’s former lawyer Robert Richter, who called this week for the claims to be investigated.
“If the evidence is there that bribe money was paid to someone, we call for them to give it to police so they can investigate, otherwise these allegations are absurd,” Flynn said.
“Playing on a sexual abuse survivor’s need to remain anonymous is grossly unfair to say the least. Those driving this propaganda know the surviving complainant can only defend his character so much while protecting his identity.”
Victorian and federal authorities are not investigating, as no proof has been provided.
It is clear that Pell and Becciu have clashed since at least 2016. The first cathedral complainant went to police in June 2015, but had first disclosed the abuse to his sister in 2012 or 2013.
The man’s lawyer, Vivian Waller, said he denied any knowledge or receipt of any payments, and wouldn’t comment further about the claims.
Pell left Rome to confront the Victorian allegations in 2017, amid a power struggle with Becciu which had seen an audit into Vatican finances cancelled.
Pell was charged that June and later convicted, but the high court of Australia overturned the convictions in April.
Becciu had remained in charge of millions of euros in Vatican finances until his downfall last month. As it happened, Pell returned to the Vatican only days later; just in time for the release of the sensational Becciu story.
“But how the wheel turns,” Bolt noted on Sky.
It may yet turn again.
While no evidence has been released to support the claims that a large payment was made to Australia to frame Pell, reports about the financial impropriety of Becciu continue to mount.
In many cases, they are reportedly backed by bank transfer documents and company records.
Ed Condon, a canon lawyer who has reported extensively on Vatican finances for the Catholic News Agency, said that if the Pell claims were true, similar documents would exist to support them.
Condon believes the truth could lie with Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, who effectively served as Becciu’s right-hand man until the cardinal was promoted in 2018.
“If money was moved, Perlasca would be uniquely placed to know – and indeed may have played a role in moving it,” Condon wrote last week.
“He would also be able to furnish prosecutors with evidence of what money went where in Australia, when, and why.
“And, to be sure, if it happened, there will be evidence.”