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The Pope, his Bank & the Mafia

The secretive Vatican Bank is ruled by a small group of cardinals and, ultimately, the pontiff

There is hullaballoo in the Vatican, since sensitive and highly embarrassing internal documents were leaked to the media. Over the past month, “Vatileaks” produced three major scandals: revelations of cronyism and corruption governing the papal state, the rumor of a murder plot against the pope, and allegations of sinister deals of the Vatican Bank.

All this comes at a significant moment: Celebrating 30 years of service in Rome, Pope Benedict alias Joseph Ratzinger (84) has just elected 22 new members to the College of Cardinals, the exclusive men’s club that will one day elect his successor from among their own ranks. But before this happens, some of the top papal candidates could be tainted and disqualified by the ongoing scandals. May be that is exactly what is intended. But there is more to it.

The scenario looks all too familiar, bringing back memories of the early eighties. Remember the scandal surrouding the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano and the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I.? Just 33 days after his investiture, the “Smiling Pope” was murdered, as evidence gathered by the investigative journalist David A Yallop proves*. What sealed JPI’s fate was not only his “blasphemic” proposal that the Christian god was rather mother than father to her believers. He also opposed the Catholic doctrine of strict prohibition of artificial birth control – later so aggressively propagated as encyclical Humanae vitae by his successor JPII. And last not least: he announced to radically clean up the Vatican’s financial empire. This would have put a stop to the laundering of mafia drug money through the Vatican Bank by its then president, the American archbishop Paul Marcinkus. JPI did not live to fulfill his pledge. Some months later, yet another man died who was out to stop Marcinkus: the journalist Mino Peccorelli.

Marcinkus’ dirty deals department did not only handle the mafia’s blood money. It also funneled covert US-funds into the coffers of the Polish Solidarity, the Contras in Nicaragua etc. These risky operations, however, were never done in the name of the “Istituto per le Opere di Religione“ (IOR), as the Vatican Bank is officially called. They were done under the banner of the Banco Ambrosiano, Italy’s second largest private bank, whose main share holder the IOR was. The Holy See’s confident and accomplice in the BA was its chairman Roberto Calvi, a man protected by his excellent connections. Calvi was a member of the illegal Masonic Lodge of the “Blackfriars”, the powerful “Propaganda Due”, short: “P2”. Running a shadow government in Italy, P2 had among its members prominent journalists, members of parliament, industrialists, top army generals and political leaders. They included the later Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and Victor Emmanuel, the heir to the Italian throne, as well as the heads of all three Italian intelligence services.

With the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano in June 1982, the Vatican’s halo threatened to slip. Robert Calvi, publicly mocked as “God’s Banker”, was convicted of illegally exporting 27 million Dollar, but remained in office. Before the news of the bank scandal broke, he warned then Pope JPII in a secret letter and fled Rome. Days later, he was found hanging from London’s Blackfriars Bridge. Despite such provoking symbolism, his murderers were never brought to book. If he was actually executed by the P2 or the Vatican’s mafia hands, may never be known. Calvi’s family maintains till today that he was made a scapegoat in the bank scandal. Archbishop Marcinkus remained the honorable president of the Vatican Bank till 1989. Meantime, he died in the USA in 2006.

Thirty years later, the Vatileaks suggest that things did not change much in the papal state. In December 2011, archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano (who could be called the Vatican’s Prime Minister) reported to archbishop Tarcisio Bertone (Foreign Minister) and to the Pope about massive corruption and abuse of power in the Holy See’s highest echelons. He was abruptly transferred as ambassador (nuntius) to Washington. Some of his explosive letters to Bertone, leaked to the Italian paper Il Fatta Quottidiano, unleashed the current storm. They allow a glimpse on a raging power struggle of sorts. In the centre of the controversy: Bertone, the second man in the Vatican. Since December 2010, he heads the Holy See’s new internal economic control office, created by papal decree. Benedict seems to be determined to clean up – like once JPI. He is trying hard to get the Vatican into the European Union’s “White List” of countries that comply with EU standards in the fight against money laundering, organized crime and drug trade. An ambitious goal, indeed. Given the historical backdrop, the murder plot against him does not seem to be as absurd as official Vatican speakers try to tell us.

[24th February, 2012]

*)David A Yallop, In God's Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I, David Yallop. New York: Bantam Books, 1984, ISBN 0-553-05073-7