The Vatican Exposed: Money, Murder, and the Mafia
by Paul L Williams
A review by John Plender
One of the more puzzling questions of the past century is how the Vatican came
to be enmeshed in so much fraudulent financial activity. Michele Sindona and Roberto
Calvi, Mafia-connected bankers, were trusted money managers for the Holy See who
controlled the Vatican's investments. The cigar-chomping American Archbishop Paul
Marcinkus avoided Italian investigators by making himself safe from extradition
in the sovereign confines of the Vatican City. From the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano
in 1982 to the insurance frauds carried out more recently by Martin Frankel in
the United States, the footprints of Vatican officials were constantly in evidence.
Yet the immunity provided by the Lateran Treaty of 1929 turned them into clerical
equivalents of McCavity, the great feline vanishing act. None was ever brought
to book. A lack of transparency in finance, which marked the affairs of the
Holy See and the Vatican Bank from the outset, is usually an invitation to trouble.
And against the background of the Cold War, officials of the Roman Catholic
Church made dubious friends in pursuit of a wider anti-Communist agenda, much
as successive US administrations befriended murderous dictators in Africa and
Latin America in their struggle against the Soviet Union. The purpose of P2,
the notorious Masonic lodge which numbered Catholic bishops as well as Sindona
among its members, was to promote right-wing, anti-Communist government. It
is also relevant that the Catholic Church, notwithstanding its claims to universalism,
was centrally administered in the immediate post-war period largely by Italians.
Like the Italian Christian Democrat politicians whom they funded, many Vatican
officials felt that the end justified the tawdry means where the anti-Communist
crusade was concerned. There is clearly room for a comprehensive account of
the Church's financial wheeling and dealing since Pius XI struck his pact with
Mussolini in 1929. Paul L. Williams, a former consultant to the FBI with academic
qualifications in philosophy and religion, brings more gusto than finesse to
the task. His concern in The Vatican Exposed is primarily with the how
rather than the why, which is not, in itself, a criticism. But while the book
pulls together the main strands of the story, it is based largely on secondary
sources and is badly flawed. Not untypical of the style is an assertion that
the way to do lucrative business in modern Poland is to go through John Paul
II. This is based on hearsay evidence from an unnamed businessman described
as an unofficial ambassador to the Vatican with links to organized crime. Allegations
that the Vatican Bank is a world leader in laundering underworld cash, while
all too plausible, are lifted uncritically from a report in the Daily Telegraph.
Vatican involvement in an online Mafia banking scam is sourced, bizarrely, to
the Xinhua News Agency. Italian names are endlessly misspelt.
Yet the more fundamental weakness is that Williams is ill at ease with financial
detail. When the Special Administration of the Holy See was established by Pius
XI on the ratification of the Lateran Treaty, we are told of how the Vatican's
worthless securities in the Banca di Roma were turned into a $632 million fortune.
The account of this alchemical transaction is frankly garbled. Elsewhere, we
learn of heavy buying that inflated the stock-market value of a company wholly
owned by Roberto Calvi. If it is possible to have a buying frenzy in a company
wholly owned by one man, even a man known as God's banker, we surely need to
be told how this remarkable trick was done. The New York Stock Exchange, meantime,
is said to have collapsed in 1929, which will come as news to this durable institution.
Williams, who begins each chapter with familiar biblical quotes on the difficulty
of reconciling God and Mammon, has no difficulty in making the charge of hypocrisy
stick. But he omits to say anything in mitigation, failing, for example, to
point out that in 1984 the Vatican paid the National Westminster Bank, the Midland
and other creditors of the failed Banco Ambrosiano some $244 million in recognition
of its moral involvement in Calvi's fraud.
Some may also feel that if the opaque dealings of Vatican financiers allowed
money to be channelled to Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s, then John
Paul II's reluctance to face up to the financial crookedness in the Church's
midst was understandable, or even justifiable, if it hastened the collapse of
the Berlin Wall. We will have to wait a little longer for the definitive account
of the Vatican's compact with Mammon. And it has to be said that, for want of
greater transparency and accountability, there is a serious risk that this murky
tale will run and run.
John Plender writes for the Financial Times and is author of Going
off the Rails: Global capital and the crisis of legitimacy (2003)