The Vatican bank, one of the more secretive institutions of the secrecy-obsessed Vatican, opened itself up to a little external scrutiny Thursday in a bid to show it's serious about fighting money-laundering and being more financially transparent.
During a nearly three-hour power-point presentation to a few dozen journalists, the bank's director, Paolo Cipriani, highlighted the peculiar nature of the Institute for Religious Works, the bank's official name, and stressed its internal and external financial controls.
But more importantly, he refuted media allegations that the institution has been less than cooperative with requests for financial information from banks such as JPMorgan and Italian authorities.
At one point, Cipriani displayed a letter from Italy's financial police thanking him for his "timely and exhaustive response" in signaling a suspect transaction to them even before the Vatican's new anti-money laundering law went into effect last year. And he described in detail the various checks carried out by the institute to ensure that the money that comes into and out of its accounts is clean.
The institute, known by its Italian acronym IOR, has long been the subject of rumor and scandal — earned in part because of its role two decades ago in one of the most spectacular banking collapses in Italy, and ongoing suspicions by Italian investigators that it hasn't abided by anti-money laundering norms.
Cipriani, in fact, remains under investigation by Rome prosecutors for a 2010 suspect transaction. He hasn't been charged and said the routine transaction merely involved moving money from one IOR treasury account to another — not a client transfer which requires more information be provided.
In his first ever news conference, Cipriani said that his aim in coming before reporters was to "remove the veil and shadow of the past and do the utmost to respect the needs of the Holy See."
However, TV cameras and recording devices were barred, and Cipriani didn't take spontaneous questions from reporters. Instead the Vatican spokesman selected some that had been previously submitted and posed them to Cipriani, an affable, fast-talking Italian who nevertheless seemed a bit overwhelmed by the whole encounter.
The visit comes on the eve of a crucial decision by a Council of Europe committee on whether the Vatican has complied with a host of anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing norms.
A good compliance grade will enhance the Vatican's chances of eventually getting on the so-called "white list" of countries that share financial information — a keen aim of both Pope Benedict XVI and Cipriani, since the bank has to deal with financial institutions that insist on such transparency.
Cipriani has presided over similar presentations in recent weeks to groups of ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, a new openness that marks a turning point for the institute founded in 1942 by Pope Pius XII to manage assets destined for religious or charitable works.
Located in a squat, stone tower just inside the Vatican City gates, the IOR is not open to the public and isn't even a bank per se but rather an institution that provides financial services, such as bank transfers and financial advice, for church entities in 150 countries.
It has about 35,000 accounts belonging to religious congregations, dioceses, Holy See offices, diplomats and Vatican officials. Cipriani said it has about €6 billion ($7.5 billion) in assets and makes conservative, ethically-minded investments, about 5 percent of which are in the stock market and the bulk in bonds.
It doesn't do any business with offshore banks, applies regular customer due diligence and internationally-approved bank transfer measures and has a fully functioning anti-money laundering system of checks, he said.
The IOR has been in the news lately because of the ouster of its president, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, who was brought in specifically to help usher in a new era of transparency. The IOR's lay board of financiers removed Gotti Tedeschi last month, saying he had actually become an obstacle to transparency.
On Wednesday, the board met for the first time since the ouster and began deliberations on the selection of a new president.
Cipriani didn't mention Gotti Tedeschi's name or refer to the ouster. He did, however, respond to some other issues that have arisen in recent months, including the abrupt decision by JPMorgan to close its IOR account earlier this year.
Because the IOR isn't a traditional bank per se, it relies on commercial banks in Italy and elsewhere to carry out its transactions. Its 35-year relationship with JPMorgan came to an end when the U.S. bank asked for information about transactions beyond the scope of what the IOR was contractually required to provide.
Cipriani said the type of information JPMorgan was seeking involved "types of questions made by vigilance authorities." It was a reference to the Vatican's claim that Italian banking regulators were forcing JPMorgan to seek such extra information on its behalf, even though there were no suspect transactions to warrant the requests.
The questions didn't concern an individual suspect transaction, as would be the norm, but rather general questions about the IOR's policies about joint accounts, accounts with delegates and other matters, Cipriani said.
Cipriani displayed a letter in which he told JPMorgan to have Italian banking regulators go through the Vatican's financial intelligence unit to get the information it wanted. Instead, JP Morgan "unilaterally" closed the account, he added.
JPMorgan has said it cannot comment. The Bank of Italy has refused repeated requests for comment about its decision to designate the IOR an offshore entity, a move that requires banks in Italy to apply more scrupulous controls over their IOR transactions.
The Vatican believes the Bank of Italy is using its regulatory control over Italian banks to undermine the IOR's efforts to show its finances, once the subject of scandal, now really are clean.
The IOR was implicated in a scandal over the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano in the 1980s in one of Italy's largest fraud cases. Roberto Calvi, the head of Banco Ambrosiano, was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1982 in circumstances that remain mysterious.
Banco Ambrosiano collapsed following the disappearance of $1.3 billion in loans the bank had made to several dummy companies in Latin America. The Vatican had provided letters of credit for the loans.
While denying any wrongdoing, the Vatican bank agreed to pay $250 million to Ambrosiano's creditors.