Priest takes his secrets – and Berlusconi's confessions – to the grave

Don Luigi Verze spared fraud probe over £1.2bn black hole in hospital's accounts

Milan

In March 2010, on his 90th birthday, the priest, tycoon and hospital director Don Luigi Verze announced, in the presence of his old friend Silvio Berlusconi, the launch of a new biomedical research programme that would see people live to the age of 120.

But Mr Verze himself will not be benefiting from the Quo Vadis project. The 91-year-old was struck down by a heart attack on Saturday, the eve of a year in which he would have had to explain how a €1.5bn (£1.2bn) black hole developed in the accounts of Milan's San Raffaele teaching hospital, the prestigious institution he had spent four decades building.

Italy's financial police continue to scour files and documents from the hospital over fraud allegations, an overseas slush funds and a suicide, while attempts to save the hospital and research centre continue.

Few doubt that many of Mr Verze's secrets – and those of the rich and powerful he knew intimately, such as Mr Berlusconi – will follow him to the grave. But it's not just details of the alleged corruption seeping out from the San Raffaele's accounts that continue to fascinate, but the personality of Mr Verze himself and what he represented.

Having built up the high-profile medical centre on land he bought in the 1970s (Mr Berlusconi was doing the same thing in this period and met Mr Verze this way) his prominent role in Milan society was assured. Like Mr Berlusconi, the would-be priest and philanthropist would be go on to face several charges of corruption in the courts, without being convicted.

As news of his death emerged at the weekend, Guido Podesta, the President of the Province of Milan, led the tributes. "I learned of Don Verze's death with the poignant pain felt by all who knew him and respected him," he said. "Even recently, despite the difficulties of his creation, the hospital San Raffaele, he won admiration and affection for his generous efforts to support medicine, research and excellence, which help ease suffering through science."

But it seems that the jet-setting priest was equally in love with luxury and power; how else, critics ask, do you explain his close friendships with Mr Berlusconi and disgraced former premier Bettino Craxi or his admiration for Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro?

And in Italy, the Church is about power. The Holy See is based in Rome, but much of its money – and strength – is in Milan, Italy's financial capital.

One expression of this influence is the activity of Communion and Liberation, the ultra-conservative lay organisation that has consistently backed Mr Berlusconi and has key supporters in Italy's richest area, Milan/Lombardy, with the region's President, Roberto Formigoni, among them. Its political influence allows the pursuit of a right-wing social agenda on topics including stem-cell research and assisted dying.

Many think Mr Verze also illustrated the church's desire for power. "He was a symbol of the unacceptable face of the Catholic Church in Italy – grabbing power, influence and business at every opportunity," Professor James Walston, who teaches political science at the American University in Rome, said. "He might have liked to consider himself a philanthropist, but he wasn't. Philanthropists have large amounts of money – and give much of it away. Don Verze was no Bill Gates."

La Repubblica newspaper described him as a man caught between "faith and science; charity and megalomania". It all started to go seriously wrong for Mr Verze last February, when news broke of the gaping chasm in the San Raffaele's balance sheet. In June the Vatican stepped in with plans for a €250m rescue. A month later, Mr Verze's right-hand man at San Raffaele, Mario Cal, committed suicide as the scandal snowballed.

In an unrelated incident, a friend of Mr Berlusconi's on trial for allegedly recruiting prostitutes for the Prime Minister's "bunga bunga" parties, attempted to commit suicide in his cell, it was reported yesterday. Dario Mora was thwarted by prison guards as he tried to asphyxiate himself.

In November, finance police raided the offices at San Raffaele as part of magistrates' fraudulent bankruptcy probe, amid claims that senior managers had siphoned off huge sums to overseas slush funds. Next came reports of kickbacks for local politicians and suggestions that Mr Verze had been planning to buy a second private jet.

At Mr Verze's 90th birthday, Mr Berlusconi said of his old friend: "He gives me absolution without even hearing my sins because he already knows them. I hope Don Luigi rests in eternity because if there is a person that deserves it, he does."

Whether someone believes Mr Berlusconi's wish has been granted depends on a person's view of Mr Verze. Corriere della Sera said it was not clear whether he was a "Saint or Devil". But perhaps in Italy it's possible to be both.

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