Paul Marcinkus, Indicted in Bank Scandal

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Paul C. Marcinkus, 84, the papal bodyguard dubbed "the Gorilla" and a titular archbishop who led the Vatican bank into a monetary scandal of staggering proportions, died Feb. 20 at his home in Sun City, Ariz. He reportedly had emphysema.

After joining the priesthood near Chicago, Archbishop Marcinkus served in the Vatican's diplomatic corps and soon became a favorite of Pope Paul VI. A hulking 6-foot-4 rugby player, he served as bodyguard and "advance man" on the pope's historic diplomatic outreach trips abroad.

He was said to have safeguarded the pontiff in 1970 from a knife-wielding assailant at the Manila airport. This endeared Archbishop Marcinkus to the church's leader, along with the American's penchant for one-liners and an athletic swagger that did not diminish, even during the most unpleasant moments of his years at the bank.

He was president of the bank, formally known as the Institute for Religious Works, from 1971 to 1989. To visitors, he always had a zinger that explained his work: "You can't run a church on Hail Marys."

With bank customers ranging from clergy to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, he was among the most powerful members of the Vatican elite. It was assumed he would be elevated to cardinal or serve as president of Vatican City.

Archbishop Marcinkus's reputation suffered markedly in 1982 when he was indicted as an accessory in the multibillion-dollar financial collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, once the largest private bank in Italy and an institution with close ties to the Vatican.

Shortly after the news broke, Ambrosiano's chairman, Roberto Calvi, sometimes labeled "God's banker" for his Vatican relationships, was found dead under mysterious circumstances -- hanging from a bridge in London in what was officially ruled a suicide. Calvi was said to have had mafia connections, spurring speculation that he would publicly divulge some nexus between the church and the underworld.

The financial malfeasance and Calvi's death became sensational news carried around the world. Archbishop Marcinkus became a central figure in the affair, and he was also one of the most enigmatic, with his leathery face and habit of chain-smoking his pipe and cigarettes simultaneously.

Largely hidden in the Vatican during the investigation, he declined to answer Italian investigators' questions about the church's role in dummy companies set up abroad to which Banco Ambrosiano funneled more than $1 billion. Later, so-called "letters of comfort" surfaced, reputedly showing the archbishop's guarantee of protecting bank creditors' investments.

While denying wrongdoing, the Vatican paid $244 million to creditors of the Ambrosiano bank in what it called "recognition of moral involvement" in the bank's collapse.

The Italian government issued an arrest order for the archbishop and two bank subordinates as "accessories to fraudulent bankruptcy," but the Vatican, an independent state, refused to comply and cited diplomatic immunity. The Italian high court agreed, allowing the archbishop to avoid standing trial.

"I may be a lousy banker," he said during the height of the probe, "but at least I'm not in jail."

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