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Vatican watchdog sees record cooperation levels despite raid

Horse mounted police officers patrol Via della Conciliazione, the street leading to St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, on the occasion of the Feast of Rome's Patrons Saints Peter and Paul, in Rome Monday, June 29, 2020. (Mauro Scrobogna/LaPresse via AP)
Horse mounted police officers patrol Via della Conciliazione, the street leading to St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, on the occasion of the Feast of Rome's Patrons Saints Peter and Paul, in Rome Monday, June 29, 2020. (Mauro Scrobogna/LaPresse via AP)

The Vatican’s financial watchdog agency has reported record levels of internal cooperation despite being thrown into turmoil in October when Vatican police raided its offices as part of an investigation into a 350 million-euro (nearly $400 million) London real estate deal.

The Financial Information Authority, created in 2010 to help the Vatican shed its reputation as an offshore tax haven, issued its annual report Friday. It said it received 64 suspicious activity reports last year and forwarded 15 of the cases to Vatican prosecutors for further investigation.

The agency, known by its Italian acronym AIF, reported receiving internal requests for information concerning 423 subjects, a record high number that indicated greater cooperation within the Holy See in efforts to stamp out money-laundering and other financial crimes, the report said.

And yet the report made no mention of the fact that the AIF office was raided on Oct. 1 by Vatican police who seized confidential documentation as part of an investigation by Vatican prosecutors into the secretariat of state’s 2012 investment into a luxury London residential building.

The resulting scandal has exposed that the Holy See poured 350 million euros into the building, much of it donations from the faithful, while signing unfavorable contracts with middlemen who made millions of euros in fees to manage and develop the property.

At the time of the raid, the AIF was conducting its own cross-border investigation into the deal, trying to follow the money to see who might be benefiting from it. The controversial raid, which torpedoed the AIF investigation and resulted in the removal of the AIF’s top two managers, suggests that the prosecutors’ investigation was sparked at least in part by fears that the AIF was being too aggressive in rooting out financial malfeasance that could have implicated high ranking Vatican officials.

The annual report makes no reference to the raid, scandal or ensuing upheaval, noting only that new officials and board members have been named and that the Vatican was temporarily suspended from the Egmont Group of financial intelligence units. Egmont, which gathers global financial watchdog agencies to share information in the fight against international money laundering, only allowed the Vatican back in after Vatican prosecutors agreed to keep the documentation they had seized confidential.

Since its inception, the AIF has held an official Vatican news conference to present its annual report and field questions about the Vatican’s efforts to clean up its finances. The AIF’s new president, Carmelo Barbagallo, said the agency decided “to maintain a certain measure of sobriety” this year because he had only recently been named, and also because of logistical problems organizing a briefing given the coronavirus.

Barbagallo said he intended to rename the office to reflect its supervisory nature, and also planned to amend its statutes to make his position more “proactive” in both strategic planning and control.