2 February 2024

The Vatican, “it is the smallest and most complicated country” they have ever seen. In 2011, financial experts from the Council of Europe were dispatched to help the micro-state put its accounts in order. Stunned by the complexity of the system, they come up against a wall: the authorities of the Holy See, like Italian officials, are reluctant to cooperate… The European Union and the Italian central bank end up sanctioning the Vatican. In 2013, electronic payment terminals were blocked; it becomes impossible to pay by card around Saint-Pierre square. This episode is part of a pivotal period in the long and romantic history of business and finance of the Holy See, told by the journalist François de Labarre in the book-investigation Vatican offshore (Albin Michel, 192 pages, 20.90 euros).

Until recently, transparency was taboo in the Vatican. At the end of the 1970s, Pope John Paul II decided to use the Vatican’s private bank, the Institute for the Works of Religion, to finance the fight against communism and surrounded himself with more or less recommendable intermediaries. . And, from the 1980s, the Mafia rushed into the breach to open anonymous accounts, while Italian politicians took advantage of this to finance their parties. In 2013, when Benedict XVI renounced the papacy, the United States placed the Vatican on the blacklist of countries likely to serve as a platform for laundering drug money.

A disrupted system

As soon as he was elected, Pope Francis tackled the problem head-on and “an armada of white collars arrives in the walls of the Vatican”. But several cases broke out, such as the purchase of a luxury building in London by prelates. This operation is suspected of having given rise to embezzlement and acts of corruption.

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François de Labarre’s work is full of colorful characters. The prelate Nunzio Scarano was thus nicknamed “Monsignor Cinquecento”, because of the 500 euro notes which escaped from his pockets… Accused of having laundered money, he was sentenced to seven years in prison, in March 2022. 71 years old, he awaits his judgment on appeal.

The politics of Pope Francis and the repeated trials seem to be shaking up the system. The Vatican has in particular equipped itself with a more restrictive tendering code, a new Apostolic Constitution and even an ethics committee. But, as François de Labarre’s book shows, these affairs permanently tarnished the image of the Vatican.

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