Pope Francis visits patients and employees of Bambino Gesu pediatric hospital, Vatican, Rome, on December 15, 2016. (Photo by AFP)
When doctors and nurses at the Vatican's showcase children's hospital complained in 2014 that corners were being cut and medical protocols ignored, the Vatican responded by ordering up a secret in-house investigation.
The diagnosis: The original mission of "the pope's hospital" had been lost and was "today more aimed at profit than on caring for children."
Three years later, an Associated Press investigation found that Bambino Gesu (Baby Jesus) Pediatric Hospital did indeed shift its focus in ways big and small under its past administration, which governed from 2008 to 2015.
As the hospital expanded services and tried to make a money-losing Vatican enterprise turn a profit, children sometimes paid the price.
Among the AP's findings: — Overcrowding and poor hygiene contributed to deadly infection, including one 21-month superbug outbreak in the cancer ward that killed eight children.
To save money, disposable equipment and other materials were at times used improperly, with a one-time order of cheap needles breaking when injected into tiny veins.
Doctors were so pressured to maximize operating-room turnover that patients were sometimes brought out of anesthesia too quickly.
Pope Francis visits a sick child at Rome's pediatric hospital Bambin Gesu at the Vatican on December 15, 2016. (Photo by AFP)
Bambino Gesu disputed the AP's findings and threatened legal action. It said the AP's investigation was based on information that was "in some ways false, in other ways seriously unfounded and out of date by two years but above all clinically implausible and defamatory on a moral and ethical level."
Founded in 1869 to treat poor children, Bambino Gesu (Baby Jesus) was donated to the Vatican in 1924 and is now the main pediatric hospital serving southern Italy.
Perched on a hillside just up the road from Vatican City, the hospital's main campus enjoys extraterritorial status, making the Italian tax-payer funded institution immune to the surprise inspections that other Italian hospitals undergo.
The employees who spoke to the AP requested anonymity, fearing they would lose their jobs.
Staff members told the AP that some of the conditions they first reported in early 2014 have improved since the administration changed in early 2015. The new leadership, they said, focuses less on volume and has more respect for following protocols.
Task force members met in September 2014 with Vatican money czar George Pell, delivering a memo warning that "risky conditions" in the hospital still persisted.
Pell, who last week was charged in his native Australia with criminal sex assault, asked Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of Catholic Health Association in the US, to investigate.
She led a second Vatican-commissioned assessment in January 2015. She spent three days in the hospital observing procedures and speaking with on-duty staff.
None of her team spoke Italian. She reviewed meeting minutes and OR schedules, but not union complaints or "adverse event" reports that are filed when things go wrong. Her final report "disproved" many of the findings of the first report and found the hospital in many ways "best in class."
But Pope Francis himself used a Christmas 2016 audience with thousands of hospital employees and patients last year to warn caregivers against falling prey to corruption, which he called the "greatest cancer" that can strike a hospital.

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