God's Banker


September 1987

by Edward Jay Epstein

The Supreme Court of Italy did well to finally quash the extraordinary warrant to arrest Archbishop Paul Casimir Marcinkus, the head of the Vatican bank and the second most powerful man in the Vatican after the pope, on charges that he had been a principal conspirator in an international banking scandal that has never been resolved. I met with Monseigneur Marcinkus at the height of the crises in 1983, in his office below the Pope's apartment, behind the walls of the Vatican, and, from the story he told, became convinced that such an arrest not only would violate the sovereignty of the Holy See, but, by making him the scapegoat, divert from what had really happened.

The entire tangle of intrigue began to unravel five years ago in June when a well-dressed corpse was found hanging by a red nylon noose from scaffolding under Blackfriars Bridge in London. His pants were stuffed with large bricks, his feet washed by the Thames--in what seemed to be a masonic ritual murder or suicide (The Coroner's Jury was never unable to decide which it was). He was Roberto Calvi, the chairman of the twenty billion dollar Banco Ambrosiano in Milan, and who had vanished from Rome three 3 days earlier, and was, even as he dangled from the bridge in London, the object of a manhunt by Italian authorities. His personal assistant, Graziela Corrocher, had plunged to her death from a high window in the bank's headquarters leaving a note behind cursing the missing banker. As soon as the Italian counsel identified the corpse, he cabled Rome "They have our banker." But $1.2 billion of his bank's money was also missing.

Government investigators traced the missing funds to a one-room branch office of a Bahamian subsidiary of the bank on the Avenue Des Citronniers in Monte Carlo. The mysterious transfer orders, which moved billions from Europe and South American subsidiaries to letter-box companies in Panama, had been typed out over a telex machine that had been specially constructed to leave no duplicate copy or other trace of the transaction. And the machine's operator, within a few hours of Calvi's death, had been ordered to close the office--and leave.

Then, documents recovered from a vault in the principality of Luxembourg revealed, to the astonishment of Italian banking authorities, that the Panamian companies which had received the money were secretly owned by the Vatican through Marcinkus' bank, "The Institute For Religious Work."

In theory, these dummy companies, through a maze of subsidiaries, had borrowed the $1.4 billion from the Banco Ambrosiano's subsidiaries, which through back-to-back loans had borrowed the money from banks in Europe. What these companies had done with the money, among other things, was to buy a controlling block of stock in the very bank that was arranging the loans, Banco Ambrosiano, and one of the most politically-powerful media empires in Italy, Rizzoli. Both of these companies were now insolvent ( because of the scandal in the case of the Banco Ambrosiano), and there was no way that the dummy Panamian companies could repay the loans. In fact, when the value of the stock was subtracted from the loans, at least $900 million had disappeared.

If the Vatican really owned--and controlled-- these Panamian shell companies, it might appear that it had used them to attain secret control over strategic banking and media corporations in Italy-- and, under the assumption they were untraceable, didn't repay their loans. But the Vatican insisted that their ownership was only nominal, and Calvi and others used its name for their own purposes. Archbishop Marcinkus claimed that he had made a mistake, out of his personal; naivety, in signing documents, obligating the Vatican to repay the loans (though other Vatican officials had in fact signed the documents).

Aside from taking personal blame-- which answered none of the questions of who had responsibility for the missing billion-- Archbishop Marcinkus flatly refused to speak to Italian authorities. And there was no way he could be subpoenaed from his sanctuary in the Vatican. The only people outside the Vatican who could explain why the bank had arranged these massive transfers, Calvi and Corricher, were dead.

When I met with the Archbishop Marcinkus-- a 6 foot 3 inch giant of a man--I found him an unlikely banker. The son of an immigrant window washer in Cicero, Illinois, he had come to the Vatican in l950 as a 28 year old student priest, and, because of his size and loyalty, became a bodyguard to Pope Paul, who had organized the bank.

He had a very different version of the "mess", as he called it, then what the world press was presenting as the "Calvi Thriller." As he explained it, the "mess" proceeded from a century-old financial problem. It was money. Contrary to myth, the Vatican had insufficient resources to pay for all the needs of modern life--pensions for its nuns, hospital care for its employees, multi-language press and radio operations, re-training its Swiss Guard to cope with world tourists, and international travel for its Nuncios and other ambassadors. (All it got from Italy was free telephone privileges-- which helped). "You can't run the church on hail marys alone", the Archbishop pointed out-- nor can a city state be run entirely by payer. Yet where was the money to come from? The Vatican had no taxing authority. The sale of stamps and museum admissions hardly paid the running expenses of its great museum. And the diocese around the world, although they may had cash surplus, did not pay tribute to the Vatican (not in money--at least).


Questions? Email me at edepstein@worldnet.att.net
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