When he took over as head of the Roman Catholic Church last year, Pope Francis made it clear that he meant to be the leader of a “poor church” – meaning that the Vatican would focus less on its own splendor and more on finding ways to use its vast financial resources to benefit the world’s poor.
It’s turning out to be more of a struggle than Francis may have expected; last week he found it necessary to fire all five directors of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority – essentially the primary financial watchdog over the Papal State’s considerable financial operations.
The announcement on Thursday was only the most recent in a series of firings, replacements, and arrests that have rocked the Vatican’s financial hierarchy. It turns out that for Francis, casting the moneychangers out of the Temple has proven to be a time-consuming task.
Last summer, a number of senior officials with the Vatican Bank resigned around the time that one of its senior accountants, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, was arrested and charged with conspiring to smuggle more than $20 million from Italy to Switzerland. Scarano, reportedly known in Rome as “Monsignor 500” for his habit of displaying a wallet full of €500 notes, has since been charged with multiple other offenses, including money laundering.
In January, Francis fired four out of the five cardinals on the commission overseeing the bank, known as the Institute for Works of Religion, or IOR in its Italian acronym. Supposed to serve only priests, nuns, and religious orders, the Vatican Bank has been implicated in money laundering schemes and other illegal activity. Francis made it clear that he was open to closing down the bank completely.
In February, by Papal edict, he laid out multiple new transparency requirements for the Vatican’s financial arm, and created a new Secretariat for the Economy, meant to act as an auditor general for the Vatican. The following month, he indicated that the Vatican Bank would survive, though in a vastly different form, as a large number of accounts not related to its central mission were shut down.
The edict, though, has not cleaned out all of the old guard who have made the Vatican’s financial system a laughingstock among law enforcement professionals and a haven for criminals.
Last week’s announcement came after Swiss money laundering expert René Brülhart, who was named to head the Financial Information Authority, complained that he was being obstructed by the board – made up of five Italians with connections to the Vatican’s old guard.
In years past, it might have been Brülhart, at one point the head of Liechtenstein’s respected Financial Intelligence Unit, who found himself out on the street.
To Francis’s credit, there is a new board on its way in oversee the Vatican’s financial watchdog Its makeup is remarkable only because of its international nature: it’s made up of four international experts, including former financial regulators – one from the U.S., one from Switzerland, one from Singapore and a fourth from Italy. It is also notable that the Italian member is a woman, insurance executive Maria Bianca Farina, making her one of the few women with significant authority in the Vatican.
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