Head of Vatican’s Money-Laundering Watchdog Steps Down

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by Stephen Wynne  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  November 19, 2019   

Resignation comes amid 'turf war' between Vatican financial agencies

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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - The head of the Vatican's financial watchdog agency is stepping down. 

On Monday, the Holy See announced the resignation of Financial Information Authority (AIF) president René Brülhart; according to the statement, his as-yet unnamed replacement will take office upon Pope Francis' return from Asia next week.  

Brülhart has been with the Vatican since 2012, working to purge the Holy See of its reputation as a hotbed of financial corruption.

A renowned anti-money laundering specialist, he racked up a series of successes in his seven years with AIF. Through his efforts, for example, the Vatican gained membership of the elite Egmont Group, a collaborative network of financial intelligence agencies working to stamp out global money laundering, and was granted entry into the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA), through which it was given its own international bank account number to ease wire transfers.

Brülhart's departure comes amid continuing fallout over an Oct. 1 Vatican police raid on the offices of AIF, as well as those of the Secretariat of State — part of an investigation by the Promoter of Justice (Vatican prosecutor) into "serious indications of embezzlement, fraud, abuse of office, money laundering and self-laundering" involving curial officials.

The raid damaged the Holy See's financial reputation, with some officials warning that moving forward, countries may be unwilling to collaborate with AIF, as information shared with the group could be seized by Vatican law enforcement. 

The Vatican investigation is largely seen as an attempt to weaken AIF — part of a turf war between the agency and Secretariat of State on one side, and the Vatican Bank on the other.

Documents emerging from the inquiry include complaints filed by the Institute of Religious Works (the Vatican Bank), as well as files relating to a real estate transaction in which $200 million was siphoned from Peter's Pence to purchase a residential building in the heart of London's fashionable West End and another $250 million rerouted to fraudulent legal firms set up to cover the purchase of the property.

The investigation is largely seen as an attempt to weaken AIF — part of a turf war pitting the agency and the Secretariat of State against the Vatican Bank. Observers note that the Oct 1. raid occurred amid an AIF review of the bank, as well as in the wake of AIF criticism of the Promoter of Justice for laxity in prosecuting money-laundering cases. 

Observers are suggesting that Brülhart's resignation will further reinforce the Vatican's reputation for corruption, warning that it signals that Pope Francis' pledges of financial reform are going nowhere. 

They note, too, that it's the latest in a series of high-profile resignations from Vatican financial agencies. 

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Cdl. Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State

After more than 20 years of service, last month Vatican police chief Domenico Giani — leader of the Oct. 1 raid — suddenly stepped down. According to one source, Giani was forced out by Secretary of State Cdl. Pietro Parolin and his allies: "Parolin and his substitute Abp. Edgar Peña Parra were very embarrassed by the raid conducted by the Gendarmerie. Giani's head was more than payback, it was a warning to any others who would continue to probe in the future."

In June 2017, Libero Milone, the auditor-general responsible for overseeing clean-up of the Vatican Bank, resigned without explanation. Charges of inappropriate use of funds were later leveled against him.

Milone later denied the charges, telling reporters he was forced out after discovering financial irregularities. The Holy See denied Milone's assertions, but in July 2018, he was vindicated by a Vatican tribunal, which found no evidence to support the accusations against him. All criminal proceedings and penalties against Milone were subsequently dropped.

In 2012, Vatican Bank chief Ettore Tedeschi was ousted after trying to clean house.  

After three years as head, he was accused of money laundering and forced from his position. But like Milone, he was later acquitted. 

In a March 2019 interview, Tedeschi revealed that names on bank accounts were regularly changed illegally and that he hesitated to look too deeply into certain accounts, as he feared this would endanger his family and him. He even admitted fearing assassination while trying to clean up the Vatican Bank.

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