Whereas Benedict XVI and his predecessors have preached humility and ethical financial dealings from the window overlooking St. Peter's Square, his confidants working directly beneath the papal windows have continued to pursue shady financial transactions.
The Vatican has yet to divulge the business practices its bank has been using for decades. "There is fear that, owing to the transparency necessary today, one will find something in the past that one doesn't want to," says Marco Politi, a Rome-based Vatican expert.
Such things could include a complex system of ghost accounts and shell companies like the bank had when Archbishop Paul Casimir Marcinkus was its head in the 1980s. At the time, the bank did business involving foreign currency and weapons with the Milanese banker Robert Calvi and the mafia financier Michele Sidona -- and helped launder illegal proceeds the mafia earned from drug-trafficking as well as bribes paid to Christian-conservative Italian politicians.
In the end, Calvi was found dangling beneath London's Blackfriars Bridge and his private secretary fell to her death from the window of his Banco Ambrosiano. Four years later, in 1986, Sidona would die in prison after drinking a morning espresso laced with cyanide.
Under Monsignor Angelo Caloia, Marcinkus' successor as head of the bank, the Vatican consistently expanded its money-laundering activities. While he was in charge, there were secret accounts such as that for Giulio Andreotti, the controversial former Italian prime minister. On an almost weekly basis, Caloia would bring suitcases into the Vatican full of donations from Italian companies in the form of cash and securities. There, the origin of the money would be obscured using accounts such as the one with the number 001-3-14772-C owned by the nonexistent "Cardinal Spellman Foundation." Likewise, relief organizations were founded with nice-sounding names masking the identity of their true beneficiaries.
It wasn't until about three years ago, when evidence of such dealings came to light, that Pope Benedict XVI ousted Caloia. What prompted his change of heart were the more than 4,000 documents that Vatican financial expert Renato Dardozzi had assembled and hidden before his death in 2003. In his will, Dardozzi had written: "These documents should be published so that everyone can learn what has happened here."
Eliminating the Traces
It became Gotti Tedeschi's job to clean things up. As a married layman who didn't belong to the clique of curial cardinals, he was well-qualified for the task.
Still, as a Catholic bound by a sense of loyalty to the pope, Gotti Tedeschi found the new job challenging. Owing to the shady dealings in the past, the IOR enjoyed a reputation in the global financial word as being about as transparent as offshore banks in Caribbean tax havens. Gotti Tedeschi wanted to change this and make the Vatican eligible to be included on the OECD's "white list" of global organizations not suspected of money-laundering. Officials from the Council of Europe committee responsible for combating money-laundering were supposed to assist these efforts and, to do so, even be allowed into the inner sanctum of the Vatican bank.
Yet veteran Church bankers and members of the Curia apparently had no intention of abstaining from lucrative dealings with problematic funds. The plan, Italian financial investigators believe, was from then on to discretely eliminate all traces of clandestine business dealings.
A role in the effort was played by a bank in Benedict's home country: Germany. In 2009, the same year that Gotti Tedeschi took over as president of the IOR, the bank set up an account with the Milan-based branch of the American bank JPMorgan Chase. From that point on, millions started flowing on an almost daily basis from JPMorgan's Milan office to the one in Frankfurt, where the IOR also had a JPMorgan account.
Vatican officials opted for a special account in Milan with the number 1365, a so-called "sweep facility account," which was automatically zeroed out at the end of each day. The Vatican bank confirmed the existence of this account late last week, though it said it was primarily used for handling securities transactions.
Through last year, this financial set-up was allegedly used to process more than a billion euros for the Vatican bank. Italian investigators suspect that it was also used to launder funds from dubious sources.
The transfers via JP Morgan would likely have remained unnoticed if the IOR hadn't involved another Italian bank two years earlier in two cases. The attention of Italian financial regulators had been attracted by curious transactions the Vatican bank had made via Credito Artigiano. In 2010, a total of 23 million had been transferred from several accounts at that bank, but without listing the account holders or purposes of the transfers. Of that, 20 million was reportedly supposed to make its way to the Vatican's JPMorgan account in Frankfurt, while the remaining 3 million was destined for an account at another bank in Rome.
Distressing Financial Storm
Before the transactions could be completed, federal prosecutors in Rome had the funds frozen. Then they launched investigations against Gotti Tedeschi and Paolo Cipriani, the IOR's general director, on suspicion of having violated anti-money-laundering regulations. Alarmed by the Italian investigations, JPMorgan executives started asking Vatican officials where the money that had been regularly flowing through the Milan account was actually coming from. But they didn't get any satisfactory answers. As a result, the bank then gave the IOR an internal classification as a high-risk client and started monitoring its transactions for clues that might point to money-laundering.
The probes of the prosecutors in Rome and the distrust of the bankers in Frankfurt forced the Vatican to act -- more, one is tempted to believe, out of panic than regret. At the end of 2010, Benedict issued a decree obliging the Vatican bank to abide by EU anti-money-laundering norms. He also established a supervisory authority for the Vatican, the Financial Information Authority, and named as its head Cardinal Attilio Nicora, who had served as the papal asset manager for many years.
With these emergency measures, the Vatican succeeded in getting Italian officials to release the 23 million in frozen IOR funds. But the calm it had hoped they would bring to the distressing financial storm did not materialize.
Indeed, fresh aggravation threatens to come from several quarters soon. On the one hand, there are the money-laundering experts of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe who the Vatican had to allow in to evaluate its bank. This week's vote by these experts will influence whether the Vatican will one day number among the states on the EU's "white list." The experts from the Council's Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism (MONEYVAL) already set up camp in the Vatican for several days in 2011. There, they questioned cardinals, bishops and IOR executives on 16 points. They will only give the pope's bank a clean bill of health if all of those points are answered positively.
On top of that, federal prosecutors in Rome are moving forward with their investigations. Last October, they asked their German counterparts for assistance in obtaining documents related to the IOR account at the JPMorgan branch in Frankfurt. The move failed in November, however, when a judge in Frankfurt refused to issue a seizure order due to a "lack of evidence."
'Remaining a Tax Haven'
The pope's bankers faced another bitter setback early this year when JPMorgen closed the IOR's transfer account in Milan. In explaining its decision, the American bank wrote to Rome in mid-February that strict anti-money-laundering regulations no longer permit "additional deposits or withdrawals via account No. 1365."
Meanwhile, the situation back at IOR headquarters was becoming increasingly unchristian. While Gotti Tedeschi lost support from above, Cardinal Secretary of State Bertone took care to see that Benedict's decree was watered down. In the new version, it says that monitoring of the Vatican bank is only permissible with the consent of Bertone himself. Cardinal Nicora, the man originally assigned to become the Vatican's new financial watchdog, was not pleased. In a letter to Bertone written soon after the change, Nicora complained that, with it, "we are taking a step back and remaining a tax haven."
A confidential memo leaked to the Roman daily Il Fatto Quotidiano makes clear just how dramatic and divisive things have gotten in the Vatican's top echelon. Although the document is undated and bears no indication of who wrote it, the newspaper claims it comes from "the very top," perhaps among those close to Georg Gänswein, the pope's private secretary and extremely close confidant. In the document, the anonymous author describes the Vatican bank's current business practices as "inconsistent with the transparency requirements." It then goes on to say that there is a "concrete risk of a rating downgrade and, thereby, of a significant loss in the prestige of the Holy See."
The new panel charged with supervising the Vatican bank began operations in May. In impassioned letters to Cardinal Secretary of State Bertone, two of its members -- the former banker Ronaldo Schmitz, a German, and his American colleague Carl Anderson -- expressed their lack of faith in Gotti Tedeschi. In his letter, Anderson specifically eluded to the closure of the JPMorgen account. Given the "difficult times," Anderson wrote, Gotti Tedeschi had failed to "vigorously defend the institution." Schmitz, on the other hand, lamented Gotti Tedeschi's "wanting loyalty."
Two days later, Gotti Tedeschi was forced to abandon his uncomfortable position.
In order to establish at least a bit of transparency, papal spokesman Lombardi last Thursday did something that had never before been done in the history of the IOR: He invited journalists to a meeting within the fortress tower housing the bank so as to counter the claim that there were anonymous numbered accounts.
In the bank's ornate salon, it quickly became clear how seriously God's bankers are taking things. Questions? Yes, though preferably in written form. Cameras? No. Recording devices? Forbidden. A glimpse into the vault? Of course not. Still, things weren't completely serious: Bank director Cipriani jokingly displayed a T-shirt bearing the words: "Anti-Moneylaundering Expert."