VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis took a big first step toward reforming the troubled Vatican bank Saturday by tapping a trusted prelate to help oversee its management, a sign that he wants to know more about the bank’s activities.
Francis signed off on naming Monsignor Battista Ricca interim prelate of the bank, also known as the Institute for Religious Works (IOR).
It’s a key job that has been vacant since 2011. The prelate oversees the bank’s activities, attends its board meetings and has access to all its documentation. The prelate reports to the commission of cardinals that runs the bank and is currently headed by the Vatican’s second-highest official. That gives Ricca a near-direct line to the pope, creating a bridge between the bank’s lay managers and board members and its religious leadership.
Ricca is currently director of the Vatican hotel where Francis lives and of other Vatican-owned residential institutes for clergy.
Technically, the appointment was made by the bank’s five-member commission of cardinals, headed by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state. But the Vatican statement announcing the appointment made clear that Francis had approved it, an indication that it was something Francis either initiated himself or strongly supported.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the interim nature of the appointment was a sign that Francis is still considering how to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, one of the priorities set out by the cardinals who elected him pope in March.
Before resigning, Benedict XVI named Ernst von Freyberg, a German aristocrat and financier, IOR president, filling a vacancy that had been open for nine months after the ouster of Italian banker Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, allegedly for incompetence.
Von Freyberg has said the bank’s main problem is its reputation, not any operational shortcomings.
The Council of Europe’s Moneyval committee, however, says otherwise. The committee, which helps member countries comply with international rules against money laundering and terrorist financing, gave the Vatican bank several poor or failing grades in its inaugural evaluation last year.
Although praising the Vatican as a whole for its progress, Moneyval said the bank’s rules for customer due diligence, wire transfers and reporting suspicious transactions were insufficient. It said the bank needed an independent supervisor and needed to conduct a thorough risk assessment to ensure that it knows its clients and the risks it faces.
Vatican officials have revealed that six suspect transactions were flagged last year and seven more so far in 2013.
But the customer checks are just getting underway, even though the Vatican had pledged to Moneyval that they would be completed by December 2012. Von Freyberg has said they will be completed by the end of July.
The Vatican is supposed to submit a progress report to Moneyval in November.
The Vatican opened itself to the Moneyval evaluation process after signing a new European Union monetary agreement in 2009. The aim is to shed the bank’s image as a secretive tax haven and improve its reputation in global financial circles after a series of scandals, including a money-laundering investigation launched by Rome prosecutors in 2010.
In an interview this week, von Freyberg said his aim is to make the bank’s activities more transparent by publishing its annual report online Oct. 1. He has hired Promontory Financial Group, a leading firm in the fight against money laundering, to go over the bank’s client base, as well as a top-notch international law firm to review the bank’s legal framework and a fancy German public relations agency to help revamp the bank’s image.
“I cannot comment on the past,” von Freyberg said. “I am here now to take things in hand and we are doing this with great effort.” He said that he has his own ideas about bank reform but that the cardinals are the top decision-makers and that the mission of the bank remains the same.
The Vatican bank was founded in 1942 by Pope Pius XII to manage assets destined to support religious or charitable works. Located in a tower just inside the gates of Vatican City, the bank also manages the pension system for the Vatican’s thousands of employees.
The bank is not open to the public; its 19,000 clients include Holy See personnel, religious orders, prelates and diplomats accredited to the Holy See.
The Vatican bank’s finances have long been shrouded in secrecy. Most famously, it was implicated in a scandal over the collapse of Italy’s Banco Ambrosiano in the 1980s, one of Italy’s largest fraud cases. Roberto Calvi, the head of Banco Ambrosiano, was found hanging from London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982 in circumstances that remain mysterious.
Banco Ambrosiano collapsed after the disappearance of $1.3 billion in loans the bank had made to several dummy companies in Latin America. The Vatican had provided letters of credit for the loans.
The Vatican bank denied wrongdoing but agreed to pay $250 million to Ambrosiano’s creditors.
In the 2010 money-laundering case, Italian financial authorities seized 23 million euros, and Rome prosecutors placed Gotti Tedeschi and General Director Paolo Cipriani under investigation for possible violations of Italy’s anti-money-laundering regulations. The inquiry concerned a routine transaction from an IOR account at an Italian bank. The money was eventually unfrozen. Technically, the men remain under investigation, but nearly three years later, they have not been charged.
That isn’t the only problem facing the Vatican bank.
Last year, under pressure from the Bank of Italy, JPMorgan Chase closed its IOR accounts. And in December, again under pressure from the Bank of Italy, Deutsche Bank Italia stopped providing electronic payment services to the Vatican, which meant that tourists had to pay cash at Vatican museums and shops. E-commerce operations did not resume until the end of May and still aren’t fully operational, although the Vatican announced in February that the problem had been resolved.