ROME – Italian monetary authorities said Tuesday that they had impounded $30 million from the Vatican bank and placed its top two officers under investigation in connection with a money-laundering inquiry. The announcement amounted to another potential storm confronting the papacy of Benedict XVI, who is struggling with the effects of a priestly abuse scandal.
In a statement, the Vatican expressed “perplexity and surprise” that the bank’s chairman, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, and its director general, Paolo Cipriani, had been placed under investigation. It added that it had the “greatest trust” in the two men and that it had been working for greater transparency in its finances.
The investigation is the first into the Vatican bank since the early 1980s, when it was implicated in the collapse of an Italian bank whose chairman, nicknamed “God’s banker,” was mysteriously found dead, hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London.
Italian authorities have historically shied away from investigating the Vatican’s finances – owing as much to a sense of deference to the church as to the complex relationship between Italy and the Holy See, a sovereign state.
“The era of omertà is over,” said Gianluigi Nuzzi, the author of the 2009 best seller “Vaticano S.p.A.,” using the Italian term for the code of silence. S.p.A. stands for joint-stock company in Italian.
The investigation was undertaken because of a new practice by the Bank of Italy. Aimed at preventing the financing of terrorist groups and money laundering, it requires all foreign banks operating in Italy, including the Vatican bank, to provide detailed information about the origins of the money they transfer.
The new investigation appeared more mundane than the 1980s inquiry, but it appeared to be potentially no less explosive.
Officials said they had opened the investigation after the Bank of Italy, adhering to anti-money-laundering directives issued by the European Union, alerted them to two suspicious transfers on Sept. 6 from an account held by the Vatican bank at a Rome branch of Credito Artigiano S.p.A., a bank based in Northern Italy.
One transfer of $26 million was directed to an account held by the Vatican bank at a Frankfurt branch of the American bank J P Morgan, and a transfer of $4 million was directed to an account it held at a Rome branch of Banca del Fucino.
Magistrates in Rome opened the investigation because the account from which the funds were sent was in Rome.
Last year, the same magistrates opened up a broader investigation into Italian bank accounts thought to be receiving transfers from the Vatican bank.
In both cases, investigators bypassed the sovereignty of the Holy See by looking into Italian accounts that had received funds from the Vatican Bank.
In its statement, the Holy See expressed “perplexity and surprise at the initiative taken by the Rome court, considering that all the necessary data were already made available to the competent office at the Bank of Italy and similar operations are ongoing with other Italian credit institutions.”
It added that the funds were transfers originating within the Vatican bank itself, and that the bank was working to join the “white list” of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the highest ranking on its transparency charts.
In the early 1980s, the Vatican bank was involved in a scandal at an Italian bank, Banco Ambrosiano, which collapsed after the disappearance of $1.3 billion in loans to companies in Latin America. The Vatican bank denied wrongdoing but paid $250 million to Banco Ambrosiano’s creditors.
The new investigation appeared to show a more aggressive stance by the Bank of Italy, a player in the complex power dynamics of contemporary Italy. “It has a central role, whereas before it had a subaltern role,” said Mr. Nuzzi, the author.