Monday, March 23, 2015

Financial scandals of Rome

‘God’s Bankers,’ by Gerald Posner -

Like most people, I guess, I have only the vaguest idea of the corruption issues relating to modern Vatican finances.  This review indicates the scale of the problem:
From there Posner weaves an extraordinarily intricate tale of intrigue, ­corruption and organized criminality — much of it familiar to journalists who cover the ­Vatican, though not widely known among more casual church watchers — from Pius XII down to Benedict XVI. These were years when the Vatican moved beyond the last vestiges of feudal restraint to become “a savvy international holding company with its own central bank” and a “maze of offshore holding companies” that were used as sprawling money-laundering ­operations for the Mafia and lucrative slush funds for Italian politicians.
Posner’s gifts as a reporter and story­teller are most vividly displayed in a series of lurid chapters on the ­American ­archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the arch-Machiavellian who ran the Vatican Bank from 1971 to 1989. Notorious for ­declaring that “you can’t run the church on Hail Marys,” ­Marcinkus ended up ­implicated in several sensational scandals. The biggest by far was the collapse of Italy’s largest private bank, Banco ­Ambrosiano, in 1982 — an event ­preceded by mob hits on a string of investigators looking into corruption in the Italian banking industry and followed by the spectacular (and still unsolved) murder of Ambrosiano’s ­chairman ­Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging from scaffolding beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London shortly after news of the bank’s implosion began to break. (Although the Vatican Bank was eventually absolved of legal culpability in Ambrosiano’s collapse, it did concede “moral involvement” and agreed to pay its creditors the enormous sum of $244 million.)
In one of his biggest scoops, ­Posner ­reveals that while Marcinkus was ­running his shell game at the Vatican Bank, he also served as a spy for the State Department, providing the American ­government with “personal details” about John Paul II, and even encouraging the pope “at the behest of embassy officials . . . to publicly endorse American positions on a broad range of political issues, ­including: the war on drugs; the guerrilla fighting in El Salvador; bigger defense budgets; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and even Reagan’s ambitious ­missile defense shield.”
The cumulative effect of Posner’s detective work is an acute sensation of disgust — along with a mix of admiration for and skepticism about Pope Francis’ efforts to reform the Vatican Bank and its curial enablers. Pope Benedict, too, ­attempted to bring the bank into conformity with the European Union’s stringent money-­laundering and transparency
statutes. But the effort failed.

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