Dirty money, dirtier tricks
THE firing on May 24 of Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, the president of the Vatican Bank, because of a failure to “promote transparency”, must have sent a frisson of fear through the upper echelons of the Roman Curia, coming as it did three decades after another scandal involving the same institution.
By TP O’Mahony
The fall-out from the tragic events of 1982 still reverberate, and the police file on the death of Roberto Calvi, head of Banco Ambrosiano in Milan, is still open. It was that bank’s close links with the Vatican and its involvement in money laundering that led to a huge scandal.
To experienced Vatican watchers — mindful that in March this year the US State Department, for the first time, included the Vatican in the list of states deemed to be “vulnerable” to money laundering operations— it was surely a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Just before the sacking of the head of the Vatican Bank, an Italian journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi, published His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI. The book, based on leaked documents from the papal apartments — the so-called “Vatileaks” controversy — contains a mixture of revelations, including some about clashes over the management of the Vatican Bank.
That didn’t surprise insiders. Over the past three decades in particular, the bank, founded by Pope Pius XII in 1942, has rarely been free of controversy. Persistent allegations of money laundering and shady dealings have dogged its top officials. The reason for its “vulnerability” stems from the fact that it is recognised in international law as an independent state: money, therefore, can be freely moved abroad, side-stepping Italian regulations.
Even today, the shadow of the earlier scandal still hovers over the 108-acre state in the heart of Rome. Thirty years ago this month, passers-by made a gruesome discovery in the centre of London — they spotted a body of a man hanging from Blackfriars Bridge, not far from Fleet Street. The man found on that June 18 was 62-year-old Roberto Calvi, often referred to in Rome and beyond as “God’s banker” because of his involvement with the Vatican Bank. When the grisly discovery was made, the dead man’s pockets contained $13,000 in various currencies as well as 12lbs of bricks and stones. Today his death remains a mystery, though an initial verdict of suicide was eventually overturned, due in large measure to the persistence of his widow, Clara, who was adamant her husband had been the victim of foul play.
In his bestselling book In God’s Name, David Yallop added considerable substance to the widow’s claim. He traced the bizarre relationship between Calvi and Archbishop Paul Casimir Marcinkus, head of the IOR (Institute for Religious Works), better known as the Vatican Bank.
First appointed by Pope Paul VI in 1971, Marcinkus provided cover for Calvi’s overseas operations, while being in the dark about Calvi’s links to the Mafia and a sinister Masonic lodge known as P2. It has since emerged that P2 was enormously influential, counting among its members former government ministers, retired generals, top bankers and members of the Italian secret service.
The groundwork for the involvement of the Vatican in all of this had been laid by a shady character named Michele Sindona (later jailed in the US). He entered the picture in Rome soon after the promotion of Marcinkus. “Sindona, who had manoeuvred his way to becoming owner of one of the biggest Italian merchant banks, apparently convinced the financially untutored Marcinkus it was high time the Vatican began to enjoy the fruits of its huge assets,” wrote Yallop. This led to financial entanglements that would hugely embarrass the Vatican.
Marcinkus’s big mistake was to provide Calvi with “letters of patronage” (sometimes known as “letters of comfort”) on behalf of the Vatican Bank, letters which amount to a quasi-legal guarantee. Calvi used these quite unscrupulously and recklessly to establish other banks and “shell” companies in Panama, the Bahamas, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein and South America. It wasn’t just Vatican money he was playing with — he was also handling (and mishandling) huge sums on behalf of the Mafia and P2. The day before his death Graziella Corrocher, 55, his longtime secretary, jumped from the fourth floor window of Bano Ambrosiano’s headquarters in Milan. Few now believe this was a suicide. Then Calvi’s body was discovered in London. “Within days a hole was discovered in Banco Ambrosiano in Milan,” wrote Yallop. “A $1.3bn hole.”
In 1989, after lengthy legal proceedings, the Vatican, while denying legal liability, reached a financial settlement with the Bank of Italy in recognition of “moral responsibility” in the crash of Banco Ambrosiano. Marcinkus’s “letters of comfort” ended up costing the Vatican $182m. As for Markincus, he was quietly moved out of Rome in 1990. He went back to Chicago and worked in a local parish. He adamantly refused all requests for interviews about the Banco Ambrosiano and Roberto Calvi affair, maintaining to the very end the silence imposed on him by his masters.
He continued to play golf and he died on Feb 20, 2006. He was 84 and whatever secrets he had he took with him to the grave. He had been head of the Vatican Bank for nearly two decades.
Marcinkus was born in Cicero, a tough suburb of Chicago, in January 1922, the fourth son of a family of poor Catholic immigrants from Lithuania. His father was a window cleaner. The young Marcinkus grew up in the years of the Depression and during the heyday of gangsterism in Chicago. He grew to be a giant of a man, standing six foot four in his bare feet, and was a keen sportsman. He finished his secondary education at a Catholic seminary in Chicago, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1947. Thereafter, he was sent to Rome to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University, sometimes called “the cradle of bishops”. It was a move that was to have very costly and even tragic consequences.
After obtaining degrees in canon law and diplomatic studies, he landed a job in the Secretariat of State in the Vatican, one of the key departments of the Roman Curia, the Church’s central bureaucracy. He was soon to meet influential friends, among them Cardinal Francis Spellman, Archbishop of New York. This was the world’s richest diocese at the time, and the money ensured that Spellman was a frequent visitor to Rome and had ready access at the highest levels. Marcinkus was also befriended by a top Italian prelate, Archbishop Giovanni Battista Montini, who in 1963 would become Pope Paul VI.
David Willey, who has served for years as BBC correspondent in Rome, has pointed out that Marcinkus’s appointment to the Vatican caused some raised eyebrows, given that “he had no professional training whatsoever in banking or financial administration”.
In his book God’s Politician (a study of the Papacy of John Paul II) he said that, according to one of Marcinkus’s Vatican colleagues, he “couldn’t even read a balance sheet”.
He had, though, what matters most of all in the Vatican — the backing of the Pope.
Willey claims that the Vatican’s own extensive financial dealings were at odds with the Church’s officially pronounced position on financial speculation and profiteering. “The Church’s newly enunciated view of private property, as stated in Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, was critical of liberal capitalism; yet at the same time the Vatican’s contacts with the world of business were growing. This basic inconsistency was to become more glaring during the reign of Pope John Paul II.”
In Mar 1989, Archbishop Marcinkus was dismissed from his post as president of the Vatican Bank. He ended his Vatican career in Oct 1990 with a brief statement that Pope John Paul II had agreed to his request to be allowed return to the US.
In Apr 2006, a remarkable letter came to light. The typewritten note was sent to Pope John Paul II by Calvi just days before he was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge. The letter was written on June 5, 1982.
Calvi wrote: “Holiness, a possible collapse of the Ambrosiano Bank would provoke a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions in which the Church will suffer the gravest damage. It must be avoided at all costs.!
“It was me, following the mandate of your authoritative representatives, who arranged significant financing of several countries and politico-religious associations in the East and the West. It was me, in agreement with Vatican authorities, who coordinated across the whole of South America the establishment of numerous banking entities, mainly aimed at countering the penetration and expansion of neo-Marxist ideologies.
“It was me, finally, who is betrayed today by the very same authority for which I have always shown the utmost respect and obedience.”
The letter bore Calvi’s signature. At the very least it lends substance to a claim made by John Cornwell in his 2005 book The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy. Speaking of the Pope’s support for the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland and its leader Lech Walesa, Cornwell highlights the transfer of funds from Rome to Poland to help anti-communist forces in the Pope’s native land.
“There are indications that John Paul gave Lech Walesa’s movement $50m; the sum was probably donated through the services of the Vatican Bank, run during that period by Archbishop Paul Casimir Marcinkus... There was a rumour that the money was passed to Solidarity via Roberto Calvi.”
The transfer of funds to Poland is also supported by the research done by Carl Bernstein for his book His Holiness (co-authored with the Italian journalist Marco Politi). Bernstein is, of course, famous for his other book All the President’s Men (written with Bob Woodward) which tells the story of how their investigative reporting for the Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
When Bernstein wrote that “Solidarity drew its strength from the Pope”, he made it clear that this was not just due to the unstinting moral support the Pope gave to the movement, but that it also (along with help from the Reagan administration in Washington DC) took the form of material assistance.
“The Pope’s strategy was for Solidarity to remain alive underground, to resume publishing and broadcasting, and, somehow, through the Church and through his own person, to rally the spirits of the people. With that in mind, the Pope began secretly sending money to the Solidarity underground, out of papal discretionary funds.”
Calvi was the main conduit through which Vatican money was channelled to Solidarity. But Calvi was active on many other fronts, and in ways the Vatican would never have approved of. He made some gains, but also incurred big losses, and this is what got him killed.
Clara Calvi’s contention that the Vatican was directly implicated in the murder of her husband is undoubtedly far-fetched. John Cornwell described Calvi as “the Mafia banker”, and it is far more likely to have been this organisation that engineered his killing in London.
Whatever the Vatican knew or didn’t know, there is no doubt that the murder of Calvi saved it from revelations that could have been potentially devastating. The gruesome silencing of him in London in 1982 meant his secrets died with him.
Not surprisingly, a much more malign view of the Vatican’s involvement in the Calvi affair was taken by his widow Clara. In Dec 1982, just five months after the discovery of his body, she accused the Vatican of engineering his death, and also told the press her husband was caught up in a Byzantine power struggle within the papal State.
But even David Yallop, who constructed In God’s Name, around a plethora of conspiracy theories, didn’t believe there was any direct Vatican involvement in Calvi’s death. While the central thesis of his book was a scenario in which any one of a number of senior Vatican figures might have had a hand in the sudden death of Albino Luciani in 1978 — who as Pope John Paul I lasted just 33 days in office — he would have no truck with Mrs Calvi’s claim the Vatican bore responsibility for the death of her husband.
“Calvi’s widow, Clara, is on record as laying the blame for her husband’s death at the bronze doors of the Vatican: ‘The Vatican had my husband killed to hide the bankruptcy of the Vatican Bank’.” Yallop pointedly said: “This is not a view I share.”
He was pointing the finger elsewhere. “Until the end of his life he was laundering money for the Mafia, the role he had inherited from Michele Sindona. He was also recycling money for P2.”
It is unlikely now that the hired assassin or assassins who killed him will ever be found. And it is even more unlikely those who ordered his murder and paid the assassins will ever be brought to justice.
In Apr 2005, four people were indicted in Italy on murder charges in connection with the death of Calvi. They were businessman Flavio Carboni, his ex-girlfriend Manuela Kleinszig, and two men with alleged ties to the Mafia — Pippo Calo and Ernesto Diotallevi. This followed an important development in Jul 2003, when Italian prosecutors issued a report concluding that Calvi did not commit suicide, but was killed.
However, Jun 2007 saw the acquittal of the four accused of his murder. A court in Rome decided there was insufficient evidence to show any of the four had a role in Calvi’s death. Then in May this year there was a new twist to the Calvi saga when the Mafia godfather at the heart of the case spoke for the first time about why he believes the real killers of Calvi will never face justice.
Back in Jul 1991, Francesco “Frankie the Strangler” Di Carlo, who lived in England since the late 1970s, was named as Calvi’s killer by a supergrass. Speaking to the Observer newspaper from a small town in central Italy where he now lives, Di Carlo related how he first came to learn he had been accused of Calvi’s murder.
“I was in university — that’s what we called the prisons in England. We were watching television when the news came on and said I was the killer of Calvi. I just shrugged my shoulders and said they must be talking about someone else with the same name as me.”
After his relocation to Britain in the 1970s, British customs believed he had been moved to oversee the Cosa Nostra’s operations in the UK. He was eventually linked to an attempt to smuggle £60m worth of heroin to Canada through London, and was found guilty after a five-month trial at the Old Bailey. Although Di Carlo denied killing Calvi, he admitted to the Observer that he and his Mafia colleagues wanted him dead. “Calvi was naming names. No one had any trust in him anymore. He owed a lot of money. His friends had all distanced themselves. Everyone wanted to get rid of him.”
Reiterating that he was not the one who hanged Calvi, he said that one day he may write the full story. “But the real killers will never be brought to justice because they are being protected by the Italian state, by members of the P2 Masonic lodge... This is a case that they continue to open and close again and again but it will never be resolved. The higher you go, the less evidence you will find.”
Calvi came from a banking background. He was born into the upper middle-class home of a Milan bank director in 1920, and studied commerce and economics at Bocconi University. After World War II, where he served with the Italian forces, he joined his father’s bank and then took a low-level post with Banco Ambrosiano in 1947. Diligent and single-minded, he soon became a protégé of one of the bank’s top managers, and rose through the hierarchy to become bank president in 1974.
Named after St Ambrose, a fourth-century bishop of Milan, the bank always had close ties with the Catholic Church and was part-owned by the Vatican Bank. Under Calvi the involvement became deeper and more intricate. And he, with Marcinkus’s help, became a central player.
The world of Vatican finance has always been an arcane sphere. Very few knew the real extent of the Holy See’s wealth. One man did. “If any layman in the world should have known the worth of the Vatican that man should have been Roberto Calvi,” wrote David Yallop in his book In God’s Name. “He was privy to virtually all its financial secrets. For over a decade he had been the man to whom the Vatican had turned in financial matters.”
At the beginning of 2002 the Vatican was reported to be furious over a new Italian film called God’s Bankers which suggested the Holy See was at the centre of a conspiracy involving drug-running mafiosi, corrupt bankers and politicians, arms traders, Freemasons and spies.
The film, using a storyline that could have come straight out of a Dan Brown novel, also suggested John Paul II, the Polish-born Pope, had used Mafia-linked funds to undermine communism in Poland and Eastern Europe.
The film, which was released in Apr 2002, also dealt with the mysterious death of Roberto Calvi. It dismissed the suicide verdict reached by a London coroner’s court at the time, and concluded that Calvi was murdered by Mafia figures with ties to the Vatican and Italian and British Freemasons.
Marcinkus (played by Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner) double-crossed Calvi (played by Omero Antonutti) by reneging on a guarantee that his debts would be covered by the Vatican Bank to allow Calvi time to rebuild the Banco Ambrosiano finances.
The themes are all familiar now, and the reality is that — even in the absence of compelling evidence — the Vatican has never entirely dispelled the suspicion that it didn’t exactly have clean hands where Roberto Calvi’s murder is concerned. Home