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

Photogallery Pistorius Sentenced, Taken to Prison

Pistorius, convicted of culpable homicide in shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, will likely serve about 10 months of five-year sentence, before completing it under house arrest More

UN to Aid Central Africa in Polio Vaccinations

Synchronized vaccinations will be conducted after Cameroon reports a fifth case of the wild polio virus in its territory More

WHO: Ebola Vaccine May Be in Use by Jan.

WHO assistant director Dr. Marie Paule Kieny says clinical trials of Ebola vaccines are underway or planned in Europe, US and Africa 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.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.7878
JPY
USD
106.98
GBP
USD
0.6230
CAD
USD
1.1220
INR
USD
61.226

Rates may not be current.