News / Economy

Vatican Bank Likely to Close Foreign Embassy Accounts

FILE - Italian financial police officers talk to each other in front of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sept. 2010.FILE - Italian financial police officers talk to each other in front of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sept. 2010.
x
FILE - Italian financial police officers talk to each other in front of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sept. 2010.
FILE - Italian financial police officers talk to each other in front of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sept. 2010.
Reuters
The Vatican bank is likely to close all accounts held by foreign embassies, following concerns about large cash deposits and withdrawals by the missions of Iran, Iraq and Indonesia, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

The Vatican's financial watchdog, which examined the transactions in 2011, believed the embassies' justifications for the transactions were too vague or disproportionate to the amounts - up to 500,000 euros at a time - these people said. In one case, a large cash withdrawal was said to be for “refurbishment.”

Now the bank and the watchdog want to reduce the possibility that the Institute for Religious Works [IOR], as the bank is called, could be an unwitting vehicle for money laundering and other illicit finances.

Four people with knowledge of the matter said the closure of the accounts was likely to be a key recommendation of a broad review that Pope Francis has ordered of the bank, whose scandal-tainted history has long been an embarrassment for the Holy See.

The review is set to be completed by the end of the year.

It is the thorniest part of nascent efforts by the world's smallest state to open itself up to more outside scrutiny. The process ostensibly began under the former Pope Benedict, but was thwarted by conflicts among Vatican officials and an Italian money-laundering investigation.

The IOR is a private bank - currently with about 7.1 billion euros in assets under management - whose stated goal is to hold and manage funds for religious orders of priests and nuns, Catholic charities, Vatican employees, and other Catholic institutions. The number of account holders has swelled to 19,000 over the years, though, and it has diversified beyond the original categories with the right to hold accounts.

Fewer than two dozen of the 180 countries accredited to the Vatican have accounts at the IOR; many Western states such as the United States and Britain do not.

Reuters has learned that the Financial Information Authority [AIF], the Holy See's financial watchdog, wrote to the IOR in the second half of 2011 expressing its concern over several cash withdrawals and deposits by the embassies of Iran, Iraq and Indonesia, according to the people with knowledge of the situation.

The transactions - which were registered at the Vatican border in line with Vatican and European Union requirements that amounts of more than 10,000 euros in cash or equivalent be declared at customs - caught the eye of the AIF because of their origin, frequency and amounts. Iran, Iraq and Indonesia are classified by international institutions and governance bodies as countries at high risk of financial crimes. The Holy See's regulators also thought the justifications for the withdrawals, including one that simply said “personnel,” were vague, these people said. It was not clear where the money for the cash deposits came from.

The Iranian and Iraqi embassies to the Vatican said they had no comment on the cash movements or the concerns raised by regulators.

The Indonesian ambassador to the Vatican, Bahar Budiarman, said that his embassy takes out up to 10,000 euros at a time from its IOR account and that the money is destined for personal use and petty cash. For bigger amounts, wire transfers are used, said Budiarman, who has been ambassador since early 2012.

An IOR spokesman stated in emails that the bank does not comment on matters concerning the AIF and that the IOR had no comment on the possible closure of embassy accounts.

The AIF said that “it does not give details about cases it investigates and does not comment on the... review of the bank.”

The review of the IOR has gained momentum under Pope Francis, who became pontiff in March this year. In June, he created a special commission to advise him on how to reform the bank, and has not ruled out closing it altogether.

“If [Pope Francis] pulls off a restructuring of the IOR and gives it real oversight and transparency, it would go a long way towards convincing people that he's serious about reform,” said John Thavis, longtime Vatican analyst and author of The Vatican Diaries.

Improving standards

The Vatican moved to improve its financial transparency in 2010. That effort immediately hit a stumbling block when Rome magistrates investigating possible money laundering froze 23 million euros held by the IOR in two Italian banks. The IOR said it had been transferring its own funds between accounts in other countries. IOR officials told Italian magistrates at the time the money would be used to buy German securities, back then a safer bet than Italian securities, according to prosecutor's documents seen by Reuters. The magistrates later unfroze the funds, though the investigation continues.

Separately, AIF officials noticed in the summer of 2011 that large sums of money were moving several times a month in and out of the bank accounts held by the embassies of Iran, Iraq and Indonesia, according to the people with direct knowledge of the situation.

Withdrawing and depositing cash is not illegal, and embassies may legitimately transfer money in and out of the Vatican provided they offer sufficient details on the origin of the money and purpose of the transaction.

But international financial standards require banks to carry out thorough checks on the origin of large cash transfers and on the effective beneficiaries to rule out the possibility of money laundering, tax evasion and other financial crimes. Checks are heightened if the transactions involve countries, such as Iran and Iraq, considered by international regulators to be at high risk for financial crimes, and if high-level diplomats are involved.

Regulators working at the AIF at the time pressed the IOR for details about the transactions. The IOR replied, but referenced only the Iranian transfers and did not provide any further details about them, according to the people with knowledge of the situation. It did not mention the other two countries.

The AIF dropped its inquiries, according to these people. One top Vatican official briefed about the situation said the response was “silly” and that the AIF should have tried to follow up. The AIF management has since changed.

Earlier this year, Ernst Von Freyberg - a German lawyer hired in February to run the IOR - told colleagues that embassy accounts were potentially dangerous, and that he wanted to close them, according to a person with knowledge of the event. The proposal was blocked by the Vatican's powerful Secretariat of State, however, whose officials feared the move might hurt diplomatic relations, this person said.

A report by Moneyval, the Council of Europe's anti-money laundering committee, said last year that while the Holy See had taken steps to improve standards, more needed to be done. The committee, which carried out the review at the Vatican's request, is due to conduct a new assessment later this year.

The bank also is coming clean on possible illicit financial activities. The Vatican has said it detected six possible attempts to use the IOR to launder money last year, and at least seven in the first half of this year. In one case, a prelate who had close ties to the IOR was arrested in June on suspicion of plotting to smuggle 20 million euros in cash into Italy from Switzerland to give to rich friends in southern Italy. The prelate, who will be tried in December, said he was not acting for personal gain.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.9009
JPY
USD
123.09
GBP
USD
0.6387
CAD
USD
1.2524
INR
USD
63.605

Rates may not be current.