By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican's first auditor-general, who resigned without explanation in June, has broken his silence, saying he was forced to step down with trumped-up accusations after discovering evidence of possible illegal activity.
Speaking to reporters from four media organizations including Reuters in the office of his lawyers in Rome, Libero Milone also said he believed that some in the Vatican wanted to slow down Pope Francis's efforts at financial reform.
He said he could not give details of the irregularities he had found because of non-disclosure agreements. Reuters was unable to independently verify his assertions, which the Vatican strongly contested.
The Holy See's deputy secretary of state, Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, told Reuters in an interview that Milone's claims were "false and unjustified".
"He went against all the rules and was spying on the private lives of his superiors and staff, including me," Becciu said. "If he had not agreed to resign, we would have prosecuted him."
Domenico Giani, the Vatican's police chief, told Reuters there had been "overwhelming evidence" against Milone. Neither Becciu nor Giani provided details to support their assertions.
The 69-year-old left the Vatican two years after being hired with great fanfare to introduce more transparency into the sometimes murky finances at the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church.
At the time of his resignation, with three years left on his contract, neither the Vatican nor Milone, formerly chairman and CEO of the global accounting firm Deloitte in Italy, gave any explanation for his departure. A Vatican statement at the time said only that it was "by mutual agreement".
"I WAS IN SHOCK"
Milone, who had also worked for the United Nations and the car giant Fiat, said Becciu had ordered him to resign on the morning of June 19. Milone was told that he was being dismissed on the basis of a seven-month investigation by Vatican police.
"The facts presented to me on the morning of the 19th were fake, fabricated," he said. "I was in shock. All the reasons had no credible foundation."
Both Becciu and Giani, the police chief, said Milone had been given a choice: resign or face public prosecution by the Vatican's courts. "In a certain sense, we were protecting his reputation," Becciu said.
Milone said he had been accused of misuse of funds for hiring an outside firm to check the security of computers in the Vatican offices where he worked with a staff of 14, including two deputy auditors-general.
A document from the Vatican prosecutor authorizing the search of his offices on the day of his resignation, which Milone's lawyers showed to reporters, said he had carried out investigations "in clear violation" of the statutes of his department.
It was not clear which statutes were said to have been violated. Article two of the statutes says the auditor-general has "full autonomy and independence", including to "receive and investigate any reports on anomalous activities" of Vatican entities.
"My work has to be independent. It is very difficult to act with independence when departments blocked our activity or tried to control it," he said.
The search warrant also said he had looked into the affairs of high-ranking Church members without authorization.
Milone said this referred to him looking into suspicions about the possible conflict of interest of an Italian cardinal, whom he declined to name. His investigation found nothing, but Milone said he believed he was being punished for starting it in the first place.
He said his troubles had begun on the morning of Sept. 27, 2015, when he suspected that his office computer had been tampered with. He contacted an external company that had done work for him before to check for surveillance devices "because there are no such specialized people" in the Vatican.
The company discovered that his computer had been the target of an unauthorized access, and that his secretary's computer had been infected with spyware that copied files.
Reuters was not able to independently determine which company had been hired or its findings.
Becciu said there was proof that the outside contractor had been helping Milone to spy on others.
Milone said that, after about 12 hours of questioning by Vatican police, he had decided to sign a resignation letter in order to "protect my family and my reputation".
Asked why he had waited three months before telling his side of the story, Milone said he had wanted to think "and let things settle".
"I wrote to the pope in mid-July and gave him my point of view, explaining that the whole thing was a set-up," he said, adding that the pope had not replied.
Becciu said the pope had been told of the investigation and the evidence before Milone was asked to resign.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Kevin Liffey)