The Vatican's economy czar said Friday he had stumbled across hundred of millions of euros "tucked away" in various accounts, describing the windfall as a relic of the papacy's medieval but soon-to-be reformed financial set-up.
"We have discovered that the (Vatican's financial) situation is much healthier than it seemed," the Australian cardinal told Britain's Catholic Herald.
Pell, tasked by Pope Francis with revamping the Vatican's byzantine financial system, said the hidden fortune "did not appear on the balance sheet."
No doubt mindful of past allegations of Vatican financial shenanigans, papal spokesman Federico Lombardi quickly sought to forestall any idea there was something unholy about the mystery funds.
Pell, who found the money during an audit, did not describe it as "illegal, illicit or badly administered," Lombardi said.
The discovery "was the result of constructive cooperation between the different Vatican institutions."
Nevertheless, Pell acknowledged that the extraordinary situation reflected the quirks of an ancient method of Vatican money management.
"Those in the Curia were following long established patterns," Pell said. "Just as kings had allowed their regional rulers, princes and governors an almost free hand, provided they balanced their books, so too did the popes with the curial cardinals."
- Cleaning up the bank -
Pell also spoke frankly about the Vatican's former practise of secrecy and allegations of money laundering at the papal bank, which he said is now being cleaned up.
The bank was the main shareholder of the Banco Ambrosiano, which collapsed in 1982 amid accusations of ties to the Mafia, while its chairman Roberto Calvi -- dubbed "God's Banker" -- was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London in a suspected murder by mobsters.
Pell said there was "almost unanimous consensus among the cardinals" during the conclave which elected Francis last year on the need for the bank to be brought into line with international standards.
The reforms are now "well under way and already past the point where it would be possible to return to the 'bad old days'. Much remains to be done but the primary structural reforms are in place," he said.
The cardinal, 73, said the changes were "designed to make all Vatican financial agencies boringly successful."
The good news, he said, is that the Vatican is "not broke" and is "paying its way, while possessing substantial assets and investments".
After a campaign to weed out suspect accounts at the bank, he said the Vatican was guarded against criminal infiltrations and was determined to invest donations "efficiently and honestly".
The centuries-old institution was perceived by some as "an old noble family sliding towards bankruptcy... incompetent, extravagant and easy pickings for thieves. Already this misapprehension is dissolving," he said.