VATICAN CITY — Just two days after creating a commission to review the activities of the scandal-plagued Vatican Bank, Pope Francis is confronting the first major crisis of his papacy — starring once again an unscrupulous prelate and large amounts of cash of unclear origin.
On Friday (June 28), Italian police arrested the Rev. Nunzio Scarano, a senior prelate working in the Vatican treasury, officially known as the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See.
Scarano stands accused of trying to smuggle some 20 million euros from Switzerland to Italy on behalf of a financier.Â According to prosecutors, Scarano and his associates concocted a plan that seems to come straight out of a spy movie, involving a rented plane and help from contacts within the Italian secret service.
While it is not clear whom the money belonged to, the investigation stemmed from prosecutors’ years-long probe into alleged money laundering at the Vatican Bank.
Prosecutors say they have no indication that the latest scandal involves the Vatican Bank itself, even though Scarano holds several accounts at the Institute for the Works of Religion, as the bank is formally known.
With its checkered history marked by allegations of shady deals and its tradition of utter secrecy, the Vatican Bank has become a focal point in criticism over mismanagement — if not outright corruption — within the Curia, the church’s central bureaucracy.
Francis, who was elected with a clear mandate to reform the Curia, called for a simpler, poorer church. To him,Â the Vatican’s scandals are a powerful countermessage to the church’s mission of preaching the gospel.
This latest case certainly won’t help improve the Vatican’s already tarnished image. But what is significant is that Francis moved to act even before the new crisis erupted — signaling his resolve to tackle a persistent source of scandal that his predecessors were unwilling or unable to put down.
Clouds had been gathering around Scarano for several days; earlier this month, the Vatican suspended the senior prelate from his job for another investigation by magistrates in Salerno.
His actions in that case involved taking 560,000 euros in cash out of his account in the Vatican Bank and dividing it up into smaller sums given to several friends, allegedly in order to avoid raising suspicions. The friends then gave him back the money in donation checks.
Because there’s no indication that the Vatican Bank or treasury are involved, the case could amount to just another unscrupulous, and possibly criminal, prelate. But unlike his predecessors, Francis has shown he wants to address the root of the problem, rather than try to patch things up when a scandal explodes.
On Wednesday, when early indicators of the Salerno investigation first started to emerge, Francis announced a review commission with full powers to access all of the Vatican Bank’s documents and data. The commission will report directly and frequently to the pope.
One Vatican source said the move could reflect the fact that the Argentine pope doesn’t fully trust the bank’s management to give him the full picture of what is buried in its 18,900 accounts, some of them dating back decades.
As the Scarano stories grew, Francis decided to quicken his pace after spending the first months of his pontificate mostly listening and consulting. A telling detail from the so-called Vatileaks scandal that rocked the Vatican in 2012 marks the difference of this approach.
When Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, authorized new legislation to bring the Vatican in line with international financial standards, a dispute broke out among Vatican officials over whether the new norms would be retroactive. By all indications, factions calling for wider controls lost.
Benedict’s efforts toward transparency were praised by a European watchdog for updating the Vatican’s financial practices, saying it has come “a long way in a very short period of time.”
But Francis’ new commission will instead have full powers to access even older data. And rather than reacting to crises, as was the custom in the past, he seems keen on preventing them from emerging from one of the darkest and most secretive corners of the Vatican.
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