Archbishop Paul Marcinkus

Vatican Bank head hit by scandal


Paul Casimir Marcinkus, priest: born Cicero, Illinois 15 January 1922; ordained priest 1947; general manager, Istituto per le Opere di Religione 1969-71, president 1971-89; Pro-President, Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City State 1981-90; Titular Archbishop of Orta 1981-2006; died Sun City, Arizona 20 February 2006.

"All I can say, it was a heck of a lot of money." Thus Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, wreathed in smoke in his study-like office just off the courtyard of Sixtus V, fending off an inquisitive reporter in the wake of the largest and most embarrassing scandal in the Vatican's history. The money in question amounted to around $1.3bn. It was the sum that vanished with the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano in that summer of 1982, lost in a constellation of tiny shell companies scattered across Europe and Central and Latin America - all of them controlled by the IOR, the Vatican's bank, of which Marcinkus was president.

In the two millennia of the Church's existence, there have surely been few more extraordinary prelates than this Chicago-born son of an immigrant Lithuanian window-cleaner. In his four decades in Rome, the chain-smoking Marcinkus was variously student of canon law, papal bodyguard, Vatican banker, formidable golfer, and finally virtual prisoner in the tiny territory of the Holy See, the object of an arrest warrant issued by the Italian authorities investigating the gigantic Ambrosiano fraud. It was the biggest bank failure of its era, and at its centre was Paul Marcinkus.

He grew up in the 1920s and 1930s on the western edge of Chicago, in Cicero, whose more noted products of the era included Al Capone. Marcinkus however didn't take up crime (or at least, his critics would say, not until later). Instead, to the considerable astonishment of his peers, the gifted student athlete opted for the Church.

In 1950 he went to study at the Gregorian College in Rome. A summer stint at the Vatican's Secretariat of State so impressed his superiors that Marcinkus he was taken on full-time. There, crucially, he caught the eye of then Archbishop Giovanni Battista Montini. In 1963, Montini was elected Pope Paul VI, and Marcinkus - six foot three in his socks and infinitely more streetwise than the average Vatican functionary - quickly assumed the role of bodyguard and general fixer on papal trips. On a 1970 visit to the Philippines he is credited with saving the Pope's life from a would-be assassin. The following year saw a more surprising appointment. "Il Gorilla", as Marcinkus was called, was named president of the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, more commonly known as the Vatican Bank.

Why was he chosen? His drive and personality surely played a part, as did his contacts - Marcinkus was a good friend of David Kennedy, chairman of Chicago's then premier financial institution, the Continental Illinois Bank (itself to collapse years later, in an entirely separate scandal). These attributes must have made him an attractive candidate for the IOR at a moment when the Vatican needed to raise money on a global scale to pay for its expanding mission abroad and growing bureaucracy at home.

This hulking bear of a man, with his gregarious, no-nonsense manner, seemed a perfect choice. "You can't run the Church on Hail Marys," Marcinkus famously once said. Visiting American businessmen and other potential benefactors sought him out. Often a round of golf with the archbishop on the Acqua Santa course out by the ancient Appian Way was the highlight of their stay.

But the enterprising archbishop had an unhappy choice of Italian friends. The first was Michele Sindona, a Sicilian financier with Mafia links to whom the IOR entrusted much of its investment policy - only for Sindona's empire to collapse in the mid-1970s. Then came Roberto Calvi, president of Ambrosiano, Italy's largest private bank, and part of Milan's old Catholic establishment.

It is hard to imagine the interaction of Calvi, furtive, devious and eternally suspicious, with the blunt, back-slapping American archbishop. But interaction there was. Ambrosiano was built on a mountain of debt, and in a bewilderingly complicated series of transactions, that debt was ultimately lodged in a set of foreign "nameplate" companies which the Vatican controlled and - by virtue of its name - effectively guaranteed.

But in 1981 Calvi was sent to prison for currency offences, and his precarious scheme unravelled. In a last desperate bid to find the money, Ambrosiano representatives went to the Vatican, arguing that not only did it have a moral obligation to help; if it did not, the Church would find itself at the centre of a massive scandal. Marcinkus, however, turned them down. So be it, he told them, adding wryly of Calvi, "This is what you get for helping a friend."

The scandal duly erupted. Ambrosiano collapsed, and on 18 June 1982 Calvi, "God's Banker", was found hanged beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London. Soon Marcinkus himself was a wanted man. In 1984, the Holy See was forced to pay $250m as its part in a settlement with Ambrosiano's creditors, but for years afterwards the Italian authorities sought his extradition.

To this day the extent of Marcinkus's guilt is unclear. He maintained he was innocent, that his only crime was to have been duped by a friend. Others insist however he was in the conspiracy up to his ears. Arguing for the former theory is his utter lack of financial training and experience. On the other hand, his critics point out, he had sat for a decade on the board of Cisalpine Bank, Ambrosiano's subsidiary in the Bahamas and a key cog in the fraud. Perhaps the truth lay somewhere in between: that Marcinkus suspected wrongdoing but turned a blind eye to it, in his desire to bring extra revenues to the Church.

His Vatican career was effectively over. The debacle cost Marcinkus a promotion to Cardinal, a rank to which by dint of his other position of Pro-President, or Governor, of the tiny city state, he would otherwise have been automatically entitled. Instead he returned to the United States in 1990, to spend his remaining years as a working priest.

After a brief spell in his old home town of Chicago, he settled in Sun City, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. About the episode which had given him worldwide notoriety, he practised until the end that special omertà found only in the Mafia, the Soviet-era Kremlin and the highest reaches of the Catholic Church. He was, he said in a faxed reply to a would-be television interviewer 10 months before his death, simply "too old to re-enter the fray".

Thus Paul Marcinkus went to his grave with his secrets intact. It is unlikely they will ever be revealed.

Rupert Cornwell

News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
News
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
life...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
arts + entsReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport