God’s New Banker Brings Teutonic Thoroughness to Vatican

The Vatican
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The Vatican

On his last full day of a troubled papacy, Benedict XVI bade farewell to his household staff lining up in the Vatican, greeting cleaners, drivers and gardeners, before stopping to exchange just a few words with a newly arrived fellow German.

"I got a rosary. He wished me strength," recalls Ernst von Freyberg, who two weeks earlier had been named head of the Vatican bank in the Pope's last major appointment before his historic abdication in February.

Mr von Freyberg will need plenty of prayer and strength as he sets out to rescue the scandal-torn reputation of the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), as the bank is formally known, and help bring the Holy See in line with international financial norms, particularly in combating money laundering.

But what comes across in a lengthy interview in his office, adjacent to the medieval bastion housing the bank, is a Teutonic thoroughness that the lawyer and financier has applied in 25 years of managing in Germany's Mittelstand, its backbone of small and medium enterprises.

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"We are 112 [staff] to be precise. That is like a small Mittelstand company. You need to walk the floors, speak to the people, form groups, run projects. It is quite mundane," says Mr von Freyberg, who after 100 days in the job feels ready for a media blitz to start correcting the bank's battered image.

The bank's history is anything but mundane, however. Its last chairman, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, an Italian professor of ethics, was unceremoniously sacked a year ago. The bank's lay board accused him of incompetence and "progressively erratic" behavior in the midst of a probe by Italian prosecutors into suspected money laundering transactions. Mr Gotti Tedeschi said he feared for his life.

The banker, with links to ultraconservative Catholic group Opus Dei, was said by some Vatican watchers to have fallen victim to internal power struggles over the bank's push for greater transparency.

"They told me it is not as bad as people think outside," says Mr von Freyberg who was also chosen for his Catholic credentials – he is a member of the religious order the Knights of Malta – and "loyalty to the Pope".

"The bad reputation of the institute in the media is the key issue and then cleaning up comes sort of parallel to it. You must work at both at the same time," explains Mr von Freyberg, who says he has not met his predecessor, nor has he spoken yet with Pope Francis.

His mission, Mr Von Freyberg says, is to "get IOR super-compliant and a respected member of the financial system, and out of the newspapers".

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To do that he must appease Moneyval – Council of Europe experts who examine measures to counter money laundering – and which last year passed the Vatican in only nine out of 16 core recommendations.

It said the city state had to address important issues to demonstrate that a fully effective banking regime existed in practice, signalling that it could be a lengthy process for the Vatican Bank to shake off its pariah status.

The institute is also under pressure from the Bank of Italy, which has banned any banks operating in Italy from doing business with the world's smallest city state until it cleans up its act. In January, this stand-off caused Deutsche Bank to pull its ATM services in the Holy See leaving tourists having to pay in cash to buy entry to the Sistine Chapel.

To mend the IOR's reputation as a haven for organised crime and corrupt Italian officials, Mr von Freyberg has started checking every account, one by one, and has hired Promontory Financial Group, a US group that specializes in whipping banks into regulatory shape, and "costs well above seven digits".

"You may call this a suspenders and belt approach . . . It is simply zero tolerance," says Mr von Freyberg.

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"And you will be surprised to hear that I did not find any account of Mafia bosses for instance," he adds, quick to laugh.

But what about newspaper reports – and even court judgments – that priests have laundered Mafia money through the bank in the guise of Sunday collections? There are no limits to the amount of cash that an account holder can deposit at the bank, provided it is declared to Vatican customs.

"That is the big risk. How do you get to grips with that? It starts with knowing your customer. Is there something odd about this priest? Why does Don Giorgio come every Wednesday with 10,000 euros in cash? If Don Giorgio did that our system would catch that and alert us to it."

But he argues the bank is too small and too close to its customers to be of much use to organised crime. Italy's Mafia groups are estimated to have an annual income of more than 100 billion euros while the bank's total payments services – "everything going in and out" – amount to about 2.5 billion euros a year, says Mr von Freyberg.

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"We know our customers well," he says, comparing IOR's account holders to far larger banks. "When you hold 11 million in retail accounts it is much less likely that you detect initially something that is not what it seems to be. That is why if I was the Mafia . . . I won't give any names now, but they go to big international banks where millions of people file through."

And asked, for example, if he had found an account in the name of Giulio Andreotti, former seven-time prime minister and pre-eminent friend of the Vatican who died on May 6, Mr von Freyberg replied he would not comment on individual names but that so far he had not found any Italian politician to have an account at the bank.