Rupert Cornwell: The Vatican's appeal as an offshore haven is still evident

Wednesday 22 September 2010 00:00

"Vatican Bank under investigation." Those four words instantly summon up one of the 20th century's most lurid financial mysteries – the death of Roberto Calvi, the $1.4bn collapse of his Banco Ambrosiano, and its entanglement with the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (IOR) – then, as now, the bank of the Holy See.

Calvi was found dead on 18 June 1982, his body hanging from scaffolding under Blackfriars Bridge in central London, his suit pockets stuffed with stones, as well as £7,400 worth of cash, in dollars and Swiss francs. His death was first ruled a suicide, then a murder, but the case has never been solved.

Those bizarre circumstances were newsworthy enough. Even more newsworthy were the links that emerged with the Vatican. Ambrosiano had hidden its colossal debts with a network of shell companies run out of an Ambrosiano subsidiary in Lima, Peru. All of them, as letters of patronage issued by the IOR admitted, were "directly or indirectly controlled" by the Vatican bank.

As the scandal grew, the Vatican insisted it had been duped by Calvi, and had no idea it could be construed as the biggest stockholder in the bank. It maintained those denials, but paid creditors $224m in recognition of its "moral involvement".

Much has changed since. A commission of cardinals now oversees IOR, run in Calvi's day by the cigar-smoking Lithuanian-American archbishop Paul Marcinkus, once bodyguard to Pope Paul VI, and whose most famous dictum was: "You can't run the Church on Hail Marys."

At first glance, this affair seems less momentous. The transfers being probed involve $30m (£19m), and the IOR's chairman, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi is a respected banking professional who is light years removed from the free-wheeling Marcinkus, a self-professed financial amateur.

But some things have not changed. The Vatican remains an independent state. Its appeal to Calvi was as an offshore bank within walking distance, but beyond legal reach of the authorities. The Bank of Italy has since tightened controls. But maybe some of the old appeal remains.

Rupert Cornwell is the author of 'God's Banker: the Life and Death of Roberto Calvi'

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in