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No country for smart women... a look inside the Vatican's walls

After Belfast-born former Irish president Mary McAleese failed to make the grade as a speaker at a conference in the Vatican, Sarah ­MacDonald takes a look at the arcane mysteries of the world's ­smallest country

It prints its own postage stamps, mints its own coins, issues passports and licence plates, and has its own flag and anthem. Yet its citizens have no voting rights and its army sources its members in another country.

The Vatican is a mass of contradictions. It is the smallest country in the world, just 44 hectares enclosed by 3kms of border; yet it houses one of the most eye-watering art collections on the planet, housed in beautiful age-old architecture.

Its customs and ceremonies appear arcane to many, yet it also runs its own 21st century mini-media empire combining television, radio, newspaper (L'Osservatore Romano), social media and web operations.

In some respects, its contradictions are embodied by the Swiss Guard. The world's smallest standing army appears to be strictly a ceremonial outfit as they parade in colourful renaissance-era uniforms, yet its soldiers are highly skilled marksmen ready for 21st century challenges.

Lying close to Rome's River Tiber, there are five entrances into Vatican City, each guarded by the Swiss Guards and the Gendarmerie Corps of Vatican City State.

Due to its small size, several of its offices are located in buildings outside Vatican City itself, in places such as Rome's Piazza Pio XII, Via della Conciliazione and in Piazza di Spagna. According to the Lateran Treaty, signed in 1929, these buildings enjoy the same status as embassies and foreign diplomatic missions abroad.

The Vatican enjoys a privileged relationship with Italy, thanks to the Lateran Treaty which recognised its sovereignty and compensated the Church for its loss of the Papal States. Dr Tamara Grdzelidze is Georgia's ambassador to the Holy See.

In her view, the Vatican is a peculiar place - not like any other country or any other international organisation. "It's something in-between." As a sovereign state, it is universally recognised under international law. In political terms, it is a non-hereditary monarchy in which the Pope exercises supreme legislative, executive, and judicial power.

While the Vatican State's central government is made up of the Pope, a state council, a Pontifical Commission, Governor and Secretary of State, the Holy See is administered by the Curia. It is a highly structured entity divided into Secretariats, Dicasteries, Congregations, Pontifical Councils, Pontifical Commissions, tribunals, and other offices.

The principal departments of the Curia are dicasteries and one of the newest is the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, which is headed up by Irish Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who made headlines last week when he refused permission for Mary McAleese and two other speakers to speak at an event in the Vatican to mark International Women's Day next month. The conference was subsequently moved to another venue in Rome.

McAleese had been due to take part in a panel discussion on "Why Women Matter".

One of the most powerful offices is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which in former times was known as the Inquisition. But the administrative outreach is not confined to these Vatican offices.

As the British ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy, observed, even though the Vatican is "the world's smallest state", it has a global reach impacting millions through its executive arm, aka the bishops' conferences, around the world.

The ban on McAleese highlighted the question of how women are regarded by the Vatican. Tina Beattie, professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton College in London, is involved in the Voices of Faith conference on International Women's Day.

She called on Pope Francis to "act on his commitment to put women into positions of leadership in the Church and not just women who say what the cardinals want to hear".

Traditionally, the Vatican's women comprised a few nuns who tended prelates' living quarters and the wives and daughters of members of the Swiss Guards. In February 2013, Worldcrunch reported that there were just 30 women out of 800 citizens of Vatican City.

However, of 4,000 staff approximately 750 are female and that number is growing. In 2016, an association for the Vatican's female employees, Donne in Vaticano or Women in the Vatican, was established.

The first woman to be hired in the Vatican was a seamstress who arrived under the pontificate of Benedict XV in 1915. Today, more than 40% of the Holy See's female employees have university degrees.

According to Christopher Lamb, Rome Correspondent of the international Catholic weekly, The Tablet, the Vatican is routinely in the red. In 2015, it recorded a €12.4m budget deficit though this in itself was an improvement on 2014 when the deficit totalled €26m. "While the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel smack of unimaginable riches, they are almost impossible to value. The Vatican is asset rich but cash poor," Lamb explained.

Knowledge of the true state of the Vatican's finances has until recent times been as elusive as the third secret of Fatima.

This is partly due to labyrinthine accounting practices which have flourished for years across the various Vatican departments which operate with a silo mentality.

The appointment in February 2014 of Cardinal George Pell as the Vatican's financial czar at the Secretariat for the Economy, saw things begin to change. Transparency and international accounting standards have been introduced and departments are required now to submit their accounts to the Vatican's financial watchdog. There has been a clampdown on suspicious transactions.

Even the Vatican bank, long a source of embarrassment for its financial improprieties, now has its accounts independently audited.

According to Francis X Rocca, writing in the Wall Street Journal: "Accounting at the Vatican has never followed unified policies. Annual reports aren't released, different departments use different accounting principles, data are inconsistent and not comparable.

"Before Cardinal Pell's appointment, a panel of cardinals charged with economic oversight met just twice a year. Budgets didn't exist, and expenditures weren't itemised."

As recently as last year, Cardinal Pell discovered €1.4bn "not on the balance sheet".

The 76-year-old prelate's root-and-branch reform has been stalled, however, since he returned to his native Australia to answer charges of historical clerical sexual abuse. A court hearing is expected in March.

Vatican revenues come largely from the Vatican Museums, its real-estate holdings, its investment portfolio and its shops selling tax-free products. Dioceses around the world also send millions each year to the Vatican.

Other sources of wealth include the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) which has an extensive real-estate portfolio.

"While there are no official figures, the total property assets of the Vatican have been conservatively estimated at €9-10bn," according to Lamb. But APSA doesn't publish any publicly obtainable accounts.

And then there is the Vatican bank, officially known as the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR).

Two of the bank's former officials were this week convicted of financial mismanagement by a court of the Vatican City State.

Dogged by scandals for years and accusations of facilitating money laundering, the organisation's recent annual reports have shown increased profits. According to Lamb, "it has assets worth €5.7bn - small by international banking standards - with account holders now strictly controlled."

The introduction of new anti-money laundering rules and legislation designed to prevent the financing of terrorism forced a cultural change.

Pope Francis is on record as saying: "If we don't know how to look after money, which we can see, how can we look after the souls of the faithful, which we cannot?"

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