Archbishop Francis Assisi Chullikatt. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Catholic News Agency
15 March 2019
.- An archbishop who served as the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations is accused of financial and professional misconduct, including the use of Vatican staff and influence to assist and support financially a woman with whom he had a romantic relationship.
Sources say that although Vatican officials were informed of the man’s conduct, he was quietly reassigned to a new diplomatic post without facing sanctions.
Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, 65, now apostolic nuncio to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, is alleged to have maintained an inappropriate romantic relationship with a woman during his time as the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations in New York, a post he held from July 2010 until June 2014.
Three priests who were members of the diplomatic staff at the Vatican mission in New York told CNA that Chullikatt would frequently send the woman “inappropriate” and “romantic” text messages from his phone, and that the Holy See’s mission staff assisted her in obtaining a visa to come to New York.
One priest-official said this was “the most unfortunate part of the story having to do with Archbishop Chullikatt.”
Former staff members told CNA that on several occasions, Chullikatt mistakenly sent these text messages to staff members, who were left confused and concerned.
“The messages were, frankly, very inappropriate in content and clearly romantic in nature,” one priest told CNA. “At least three members of the mission staff received them that I know of, including me.”
“The first time this happened, he managed to send it to a member of staff who didn’t know what to make of it. As [the recipient] was a layman, it was doubly concerning to us,” the priest said.
Another former official said that every time Chullikatt mistakenly sent a romantic message to the wrong person, he would “abandon his phone and get a new cell phone or a new cell phone number.”
Another priest said the archbishop was obliged to change his phone “ridiculously often.”
A third priest who also served at the Holy See’s mission to the U.N. during Chullikatt’s time also recalled the messages.
“I cannot think how he managed to keep doing this,” he told CNA. “I can only surmise he must have been drinking when he would send them to the wrong people.”
“They were of an obviously romantic character, really outlandish, and usually sent very late at night.”
As romantic messages continued to be sent to priests, lay employees, and religious sisters, it became apparent who their intended recipient was.
According to multiple sources, the woman is a consecrated virgin who Chullikatt met during a previous diplomatic assignment. Staffers say they were expected to assist her in securing a visa and coming to the U.S., and later, in finding employment.
The office of the Holy See’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to requests from CNA for comment.
One former official at the mission, also a priest, told CNA that the woman had served as the archbishop’s interpreter during a prior diplomatic posting.
“That was my understanding of how they met,” the former Vatican diplomat told CNA.
A woman of the same name, also a consecrated virgin was previously an auditor at a special assembly of the synod of bishops in Rome, and was identified at that time as a university professor.
The university where the woman reportedly teaches did not respond to a request for confirmation. CNA was unable to contact the woman directly.
After she came to the U.S., the woman was, according to multiple accounts, a regular visitor at the mission’s offices.
“She was around, we all knew of her. She was a very significant figure in Chullikatt’s life, I think we can put it that way,” a priest-official told CNA.
The priest told CNA that the woman would visit Chullikatt at the mission in New York “quite frequently,” and that he behaved with “impunity.”
“She was there, that was it,” he told CNA. “In any normal situation, let alone one like this, you would expect there to be some sort of backstory given – we met in school, she’s a family friend, something – but he gave no explanation, he just carried on.”
The same priest said the nuncio’s relationship with the woman was part of a pattern of dysfunctional and unprofessional conduct during his time in New York. Another priest said the relationship fit a pattern of “indifference” to immorality, which included financial impropriety.
A March 11 report from Crux alleged that Chullikatt had mistreated staff at the Holy See’s mission to the U.N. and imposed arbitrary wage cuts on the salaries of lay staff members. The priests who spoke with CNA confirmed those allegations
“I would say that swinging cuts [to salaries] were a mark of his tenure,” one priest told CNA.
“He treated staff as inferiors, across the board. There was no spirit of collaboration, no sense of working ‘with’ anyone.”
The priest also told CNA that in additional to subjecting employees – both priests and lay people – to frequent and “humiliating” outbursts of temper, Chullikatt was also known to dismiss staff at a moment’s notice.
“It was alright for us priests, I suppose,” he told CNA. “We always have a diocese to go home to, but for the lay staff, they were often left stranded with no means of support.”
One priest told CNA that Chullikatt would often bemoan the salaries paid to lay staffers, suggesting that they ought to volunteer their time without concern for being paid. Because they were paid, a priest said, Chullikatt questioned their loyalty.
A source recalled a particular instance in which a lay expert was recruited by the mission for a three month contract.
“This man was a tenured professor who arranged to take three months of unpaid leave from his post to serve the Church. Chullikatt sacked him within two weeks, leaving him without a salary for the rest of his sabbatical.”
“There was only ever room for one opinion, one voice in the room with Chullikatt – even adult conversation was impossible with him, let alone professional collaboration.”
Terrence McKeegan, a former legal advisor to the Holy See’s mission to the U.N., told CNA that after he signed a one-year contract to work for the mission, Chullikatt arbitrarily cut his wages.
“On or about December 10 of 2013, I myself was informed by the nuncio that starting in 2014, he would only pay me half of the salary we had contractually agreed upon,” McKeegan told CNA.
McKeegan also noted that, beyond his contracted position, he was expected to serve, unpaid, as legal advisor to the non-profit Path to Peace Foundation, a legally distinct U.S.-based private foundation affiliated with the U.N. mission. McKeegan said he was not given access to records for the foundation, or invited to attend meetings.
The foundation, he said, helps fund mission operations and staff salaries. It also, according to its tax filings, has funded scholarships, seminars, and a U.N. internship program founded by Fr. Thomas Rosica.
One priest told CNA that may lay employees were reticent to complain because some were in the U.S. only on diplomatic passports, and because many of them love the Church and wanted to support the U.N. mission.
Former staff members said that the imposition of arbitrary cuts to wages and the dismissal of staff were linked to Chullikatt’s relationship with the woman he maintained a relationship with.
“I would say his need to be tight-fisted with the mission’s finances was, at least partly, because he had a secret need. I believe he was supporting this woman: room, board, everything,” one priest, who was directly involved in the mission’s finances, said.
The priest recalled an example in which the archbishop budgeted money for “bonuses” for the mission’s staff, but then only distributed a portion of the money.
“The rest? Well, [Chullikatt] knows where it went,” he told CNA.
Another priest, who also was involved in the mission’s financial administration, also told CNA that Chullikatt was supporting the woman financially.
McKeegan spoke to CNA about what he called the “surreal” working conditions under Chullikatt.
In a statement, McKeegan said that in his time in New York he heard “voluminous allegations of highly improper and scandalous behavior by Archbishop Chullikatt.”
“I know that the longest-tenured cleric on staff had already brought many of most serious allegations against the nuncio to the attention of then-Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Dominque Mamberti, in a meeting they had around Mamberti’s visit to the U.N. in late September of 2012,” McKeegan said.
Report to Rome
Concerns about Chullikatt’s behavior, regarding both the woman and the office finances, were reported in a “dossier” of complaints delivered to the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in December 2013, former staffers told CNA.
This dossier included a letter signed by McKeegan detailing numerous instances of financial malpractice by Chullikatt, including the unjust treatment of staff and the near-systematic withholding of agreed salaries.
“I was, and still am, absolutely certain of the serious moral violations that were being committed by the nuncio regarding the withholding of just wages,” McKeegan’s letter said.
“However, based on my experience with high-ranking officials in the Church, I knew that even sins that cry out for vengeance would likely go unheard in Rome, so I stressed in my letter to Archbishop Parolin that the unjust withholding of Mission staff salaries could constitute potential criminal violations of US visa and labor laws.”
According to one staff member familiar with the delivery of the complaints in Rome, direct mention was made of allegations that Chullikatt was supporting the woman financially, and that he had directed mission staff to arrange a visa for her to travel to New York.
In January 2014, Chullikatt was summoned for an extended meeting in Rome, for what a former senior mission staffer called “a dressing down.”
Chullikatt remained in Rome for nearly two months, while his absence from New York went unexplained to staff.
“He was supposed to be removed then and there,” one priest said, “but he was able to run around to enough of his friends in Rome to stay on [in his position] a little while longer.”
One staff member told CNA that Chullikatt had “exploited” the pope’s well-known disposition toward mercy, in order to avoid being removed from his position.
Another staffer told CNA that Chullikatt demanded a stay of his removal, insisting that members of the Spanish royal family were scheduled to visit the U.N. in June at his personal invitation, and that he needed to be in place to welcome them.
In June 2014, Queen Sofia of Spain visited the U.N. in New York. Chullikatt’s resignation from the U.N. position was accepted July 1 of that year.
“He used that time [between December and June] to clear out the opposition to him, dismissing staff and generally making life even more miserable before he went,” one former mission staffer told CNA.
During the final six months of Chullikatt’s tenure, several mission staffers were dismissed from their posts. Sources told CNA that Chullikatt waged a “vendetta campaign” because of the complaints to the Secretary of State.
The pontifical secret
Several staff members told CNA that Chullikatt would remind them that their obligation to maintain “pontifical secrecy” included his behavior. This, they said, prevented staff from speaking out.
One former priest diplomat told CNA that “I’m sure he thinks everything we saw and had to endure is covered by the secret.”
“In reality, it refers to the sensitive diplomatic work undertaken on behalf of the Church. It certainly doesn’t cover the fact that he’s a nasty little man.”
The pontifical secret, which was defined by Pope St. Paul VI in the 1974 instruction Secreta continere, obliges clerics, lay employees, and even volunteers to keep confidential information obtained in service to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Violation of the secret can be punished with an excommunication.
But the former priest-officials of the U.N. mission told CNA that the secret is formulated without clarity, and can lead employees and volunteers to think they are beholden to keep confidential things they ought to report. They told CNA that Chullikatt’s situation is evidence it would be to the Church’s benefit to reform its policies governing the pontifical secret.
In recent months, Cardinals Blase Cupich and Reinhard Marx have both called for reforms to those policies.
“Pontifical secrecy shouldn’t protect bad people and their bad behavior,” one former priest-official of the U.N. mission told CNA. “It should protect properly professional and confidential information.”
After he resigned from his role New York, Chullikatt spent nearly two years without an assignment before being sent to Kazakhstan in June 2016 – a post one former member of the Vatican diplomatic corps characterized as “the back end of beyond as far as the diplomatic service goes.”
One former official of the U.N. mission told CNA simply “he doesn’t deserve to be anywhere.”
McKeegan described the handling of the allegations against Chullikatt, and his eventual rehabilitation as part of an “all-too-familiar pattern.”
“Rome followed a very specific playbook with its handling of Archbishop Chullikatt. Although giving the impression (never directly but via back channels and rumor) to the whistleblower or accuser that Rome was dealing with the problem, the Vatican was instead maneuvering to protect yet another high-ranking official who had “played ball” with the corrupt leadership in the Church.”
“Archbishop Chullikatt was quietly given a sabbatical. This sabbatical period was not used by Rome to fully investigate the serious allegations against him, of which my letter only constituted a small portion, but rather to wait out mission staff accusers like me to give up in frustration,” McKeegan said.
Another former senior member of the mission’s staff told CNA he was unsurprised that the allegations went without formal response, and that Chullikatt had been restored to the diplomatic service.
“You have to understand the culture of the diplomatic service, and the curia more widely,” he told CNA.
“There is a powerful incentive to keep a problem like Chullikatt under wraps. You aren’t just touching one man by speaking out, you touch a whole genealogy of those who have covered for him, and those who he’s covered for and been promoted by in turn,” the priest said.
The Vatican press office acknowledged receipt of questions from CNA regarding the allegations against Chullikatt, but did not respond before deadline.
Despite repeated attempts, Chullikatt could not be reached for comment.
This story has been updated.