Saturday, July 7, 2012

Vatican Bank as Money Laundering and Tax Haven? (7/7/12)

As the world moves to more transparency from financial institutions (most notably Swiss institutions who have exploited their ability to hide ill-gotten gains and taxable income), it is not surprising that that another bastion of secrecy -- the Vatican, or the diplomatic lingo, the Holy See, see Wikipedia here -- is being targeted, although from a different direction.  See Andreas Wassermann and Peter Wensierski, Transparency vs. Money Laundering: Catholic Church Fears Growing Vatican Bank Scandal (Spiegel 7/2/12), here.

The Vatican Bank, "officially known as the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR)," like the rest of the Vatican is shrouded in secrecy.  (Did Jesus and the Disciples keep their finances secret?)  According to the article, the Vatican Bank is "something akin to a trust company for clandestine monetary transactions that is not only used by the Church, but allegedly also by the mafia as well as corrupt politicians and companies."  Italian officials, the article reports, are "rummaging around their [the Bank's] secret affairs."

Among other interesting quotes from the article:
For more than 40 years, the IOR, founded in 1942, has been regularly embroiled in scandals, including bribery money for political parties, mafia money-laundering and, repeatedly, anonymous accounts. 
Despite all of its sacred and solemn promises, the Vatican has succeeded in keeping the pope's bank a haven for money-launderers. And instead of being on some Caribbean island, this one is right in the middle of Europe, in the heart of Rome. 
Its business model depends on keeping things as shrouded as possible from all financial authorities. Capital gains are untaxed, financial statements are not disclosed and anonymity is guaranteed. The bank's exotic status of belonging to a religious monarchy in a sovereign state the size of a city park has shielded it from investigations and unpleasant external monitoring. 
The bank's headquarters are housed in a medieval defensive tower known as Niccolò V nestled right against the Apostolic Palace, the pope's official residence, and is home to a vast amount of money and commercial papers. Here, roughly 100 employees look after 33,000 accounts with total deposits of some €6 billion ($7.6 billion). The direct beneficiary is the pope and his Church; 2010 earnings from the bank were €55 million. Such revenues help make up for a decline in donations from members of his global congregation. 
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. 
[Among things of concern are] 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. 
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.
Of course, and I speculate, minnows need not apply for the services of the Vatican Bank.  And, I also suspect, that the well-connected Vatican Bank Whales probably have little to fear other than negative publicity and perhaps a few token prosecutions of the worst of what is a pretty sorry lot. 

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