An 11-month FT investigation reveals the extent of mismanagement at the €5bn-asset bank
On June 28 this year, Italian police arrested a silver-haired priest, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, in Rome. The cleric, nicknamed Monsignor Cinquecento after the €500 bills he habitually carried around with him, was charged with fraud and corruption, together with a former secret service agent and a financial broker. All three were suspected of attempting to smuggle €20m by private plane across the border from Switzerland.
Prosecutors alleged that the priest, a former banker, was using the Institute for Religious Works – the formal name for the Vatican’s bank – to move money for businessmen based in the Naples region, widely regarded in Italy as a haven of organised crime. Worse still, Scarano (who, together with the other men, has denied any wrongdoing) had until only a month earlier been head of the accounting department at the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, the treasury of the Vatican.
The arrest, and the headlines that screamed across the Italian press, was the latest shock for the Holy See. The year had already witnessed an emotional upheaval in the church with the resignation in February of the aged Pope Benedict XVI – the first time in 700 years a pope had stepped down voluntarily. But this new crisis demanded cold, hard resolve. For regulators and politicians in Europe who had pushed for change in the Vatican’s scandal-plagued bank over the previous four years – from the Bank of Italy under Mario Draghi to officials in Mario Monti’s government and in Brussels – it served as evidence of their concerns. Those worries also jolted a number of international financiers determined to press for reform.
In early July, Peter Sutherland, non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs International and the former attorney-general of Ireland, flew into Vatican City. His mission – although described by some insiders as simply a “bit part” in the wider drive for change – was an illuminating one. Sutherland, a practising Catholic and an unpaid consultant to the Vatican’s treasury, had been asked by reformers in the church to speak with the council of cardinals, the most senior advisers to the pope. His message to the men who filed into a room near Doma Santa Marta, the plain-fronted residence of Pope Francis, was respectful but direct.
How God’s bank ended up as a financial penitent this year is a bracing chapter in the history of financial reforms that have swelled up in the aftermath of the 2008 credit crisis. Untouchable havens such as Switzerland and Liechtenstein were forced to open their chocolate-box palaces to the probes of international regulators. This year the power of the popes was challenged.
The FT interviewed two dozen bankers, lawyers, regulators and Catholic insiders over 11 months to understand how the murky operations of a bank with €5bn in assets, and which says its aim is to serve the global mission of the Catholic Church, had unnerved bankers, regulators and governments across Europe and the US.
The reforms now under way at the Vatican have come about in part because of the pressure brought to bear by banks such as Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan and UniCredit, all of which found themselves in the sights of regulators because of their business relationships with the Holy See. About three dozen banks, including some of the world’s biggest financial institutions, were for years “correspondent” banks to the Vatican, providing services when the pope’s business went beyond the boundaries of Vatican City. As with other institutional clients, the banks gave the Vatican access to foreign financial markets. Correspondent banks moved as much as €2bn a year from the Vatican’s bank to other accounts across the globe, according to a Vatican spokesman. It was the bankers’ fear of being tarnished by their links with the Vatican bank after the credit crisis – and fears of fines from emboldened regulators – that led them to take steps that forced it to clean up its act.
The Institute for Religious Works issued its first annual report in early October, which showed that the bank has 19,000 clients, from around the world, 33,000 accounts and €5bn in assets. Few loans are made; the bank holds deposits, transfers money and makes investments. Half the bank’s clients come from religious orders; another 15 per cent are Holy See institutions, 13 per cent are cardinals, bishops and clergy, 9 per cent are from Catholic dioceses around the world. The rest of the clients are split among those who have, or should have, some “affiliation to the Catholic Church”, the report says.
Vatican insiders also revealed that the bank is awash in donations and cash, from Sunday collections and charitable giving. As much as 25 per cent of the bank’s business is done in cash – a feature that regulators said raised red flags for money laundering. About a third of its business comes from donations rooted in charities.
Laura Pedio, a Milan anti-Mafia prosecutor who specialises in white-collar crime, was one of the few sources willing to speak publicly to the FT. Pedio, who had been investigating the bankruptcy of a Catholic hospital in 2011 and needed access to Vatican bank information, said she was astonished to find a complex system of proxies, the authorisations given to representatives to execute transactions on behalf of often unidentified beneficial account holders.