The Vatican arrested Italian public relations expert Francesca Chaouqui and Spanish cleric Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda for leaking confidential documents in connection with two critical books out this week. Balda is still detained. (Reuters)

At a designated time each year, Catholic parishes worldwide take up a special collection known as St. Peter’s Pence, funneling tens of millions of dollars to the Vatican with the aim of aiding the poor and needy.

Yet two new books on the Vatican set for release on Thursday, advance copies of which were obtained by The Washington Post, point to a “black hole” in the St. Peter’s Pence fund and describe how only a small portion of the cash makes it to those who need it most. Rather, the books documenting lavish spending habits, mismanagement and a lack of accountability suggest the offerings are emblematic of larger problems within the ancient city-state in Italy. According to confidential files obtained by the Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, rather than going to aid the poor, most of the cash is used to pay salaries and plug deficits at the Holy See.

The Vatican’s broader lack of transparency and mismanagement of finances, Nuzzi writes, so enraged Pope Francis shortly after the start of his papacy that he offered these stern words to a gathering of top members of the Roman Curia, the powerful bureaucracy of senior clerics that runs Vatican City:

“Our books are not in order,” he said, according to an apparently secret recording of the meeting. “We have to clean them up.”

Gianluigi Nuzzi, the journalist who published a book of leaked papal documents, during an interview in Rome. (Domenico Stinellis/AP)

The two tomes coming out this week rehash a hodgepodge of older scandals while also offering allegations of mismanagement, excess and resistance to change. They already have put the Holy See on the defensive, restoring a public relations war footing not seen in the Vatican since Francis arrived. On Monday, the Vatican announced the arrest of two insiders on suspicion of leaking internal information to the authors.

The allegations in the books suggest that a mix of formidable forces confronts Francis as he seeks to reform a Vatican bureaucracy long shrouded in secrecy and charged for years with being inefficient and woefully lacking in transparency. They come as the pontiff is facing deep divisions between conservatives and liberals about the direction of his more inclusive papacy.

But if anything, Vatican watchers said, the books also appear to paint a portrait of a new pontiff more determined than his predecessor to enforce change. During the 2012 Vatileaks scandal, documented in an earlier book by Nuzzi, details emerged of Pope Benedict XVI’s inability to contain the lurid power struggles tearing at the fabric of his papacy. In his new book, Nuzzi asserts that strife within the Curia was a principal reason for Benedict’s resignation.

But if the emerging details show anything, said Marco Politi, a longtime Vatican insider, it’s that the new pope is of sterner mettle.

Francis “is reacting with great toughness,” Politi said.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t meeting resistance.

The dueling books — one by Nuzzi, the other by fellow Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi — suggest strains of opposition and insouciance toward Francis’s crusade to bring more transparency and efficiency to the business of his faith. Both books chronicle tales of extravagance, tension and even the intrigue of a bizarre professional burglary of internal documents.

Pope Francis delivers a blessing from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, on Nov. 1. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Yet perhaps most important to a church undergoing transition under a reforming leader are the uncomfortable encounters with change.

The Vatican managers of the St. Peter’s Pence offering, for instance, initially stalled when a reform commission set up by Francis asked for basic information about spending, according to Nuzzi’s book. After being pressed in a meeting by an emissary of the commission, a monsignor in charge of the fund offered only a vague accounting.

“When we requested more details, they refused to reveal anything more,” an emissary of the reform panel is quoted as saying in a report to his superior.

The books latch on to the profligacy of the Roman Curia. Fittipaldi, for instance, outlines a 23,800 euro ($26,400) helicopter ride in 2012 by former Vatican secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone, a senior bureaucrat who was pushed aside by Francis. Fittipaldi also documents how a religious foundation paid $220,000 to refurbish Bertone’s lavish penthouse with spectacular views of Rome.

Fittipaldi also zeros in on continuing problems at the Vatican Bank, which became the subject of a major cleanup effort that started under Benedict and kicked into high gear under Francis.

“The Vatican Bank hasn’t been cleaned up like we thought,” Fittipaldi, a journalist at L’Espresso, said in an interview with The Washington Post. The Italian magazine he works for has been responsible for some of the biggest leaks on the Vatican this year, including an early draft of a papal encyclical on the environment in June. “There are [bank accounts] of Italian entrepreneurs under investigation by Italian authorities still hiding inside.”

He cites, for instance, an account at the Vatican Bank originally under the name of Lorenzo Leone, a deceased Italian bureaucrat who Fittipaldi said had allegedly amassed an illicit fortune while managing an Italian insane asylum. Earlier this year, Italian authorities were surprised, Fittipaldi said, to find out about the existence of the account, which contained 8 million euros and was still being used by Leone’s relatives.

The Vatican declined to comment Tuesday on the emerging allegations. On Monday, it announced the arrest of two insiders it says were linked to the leaks contained in the books. In a statement, the Vatican denounced the tell-all tomes as the product of “unlawful” leaks by sources who betrayed the “trust of the pope.”

“Publications of this kind do not contribute in any way to establish clarity and truth, but rather to create confusion and partial and tendentious interpretations,” the Vatican said. “We must absolutely avoid the mistake of thinking that this is a way to help the mission of the Pope.”

In Nuzzi’s “Merchants in the Temple,” he describes the incredible tension between members and consultants from Francis’s reform commission and members of the Curia, focusing on a December 2013 meeting in which administrators were proposing the following year’s budget — the first since Francis had made his demand for reform.

“A heavy silence fell over the room . . . [as officials] entered, knowing they were about to face one of the most dramatic sessions in recent years,” Nuzzi wrote. The consultants were shocked after they saw the budget had been drafted just as before, with no “trace of the new era invoked by Francis.”

Joseph Zalta, the chairman of the pope’s reform commission — called COSEA, or the Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See — “saw no improvement and criticized the arrogance of those who refused to change,” Nuzzi wrote.

“The fact that the same situations are repeated every year indicates a continual rather than a temporary crisis. The problem is not with procedures but with the mentality and way of doing things,” Nuzzi quoted Zalta as saying. The heads of sections “can be very haughty, thinking they are the only ones who know how to proceed.”

Faiola reported from Berlin; Pitrelli reported from Rome. Michelle Boorstein and Sarah Pulliam Bailey in Washington contributed to this report.

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