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Vatican cleric held over suspected Swiss scam

Headache: Pope Francis has ordered an overhaul of the Vatican Bank following a series of allegations of corruption, including mafia money laundering Keystone

Italian police have arrested a senior Vatican cleric and two other men in connection with an alleged plot to illegally transfer €20 million (CHF24.6 million) of assets from Switzerland to Italy.

This content was published on June 28, 2013 - 16:25
swissinfo.ch and agencies

The Vatican accountant is accused of attempting to move the money along with a member of the Italian secret services and a financial broker, who are also being held. Investigators are trying to determine the origin of the money and whether it was being laundered.

The arrests mark another embarrassing chapter for the Catholic Church, which has been rocked by a number of financial scandals in recent years. Two days ago, Pope Francis launched a commission of inquiry into the Institute for the Works of Religion, commonly known as the Vatican Bank.

Investigators uncovered the alleged plot while investigating the Vatican Bank for alleged money laundering, but have yet to establish what role the institution played in the latest accusations relating to the accountant.

The man, who is already under investigation in a separate case involving a number of suspicious transactions of Church donations, was arrested on Friday.

The investigating magistrate said the arrested trio had initially planned to move up to €40 million from Locarno in Switzerland to Rome using a chartered plane. They eventually decided to shift €20 million but the plan fell through.

The plan was for the secret services officer to clear the money through customs before it was to be shipped to the man's home, the investigating magistrate added.

Switzerland and the Vatican

The first papal nuncio (ambassador) to Switzerland arrived in 1597 in Lucerne, the first such position north of the Alps for the Catholic church. A nuncio was officially sent to be the Vatican’s representative to the Swiss Confederation in 1803, ending a tradition whereby only the Catholic cantons were linked to Rome. 
 
Since the civil war and the creation of the Swiss federal state in 1848, the pope is only represented by a chargé d’affaires based in Lucerne. In 1920, the cabinet allowed the return of the nuncio to Bern. After the creation of the Vatican state, the nuncio remains the only link between the two countries.
 
In 1991, after the controversial nomination of the conservative Wolfgang Haas as bishop of Chur, the government considered it necessary to improve relations with the Vatican. It named a special ambassador, establishing reciprocal diplomatic ties for the first time.

Since 2010, the Swiss ambassador to the Holy See has been based in Bern after previously being based in Prague.

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New Swiss watchdog

Pope Francis has already ordered an overhaul of the Vatican Bank following a series of allegations of corruption, including mafia money laundering. In May 2012, the bank’s president Ettore Gotti Tedeschi was sacked, but claimed he was removed for trying to uncover corruption.

As part of the overhaul, Swiss lawyer René Brülhart was brought in last year as director of the Financial Information Authority (AIF), the watchdog that supervises the Vatican Bank.

Brülhart was previously credited with helping to clean up Liechtenstein’s image as head of the state’s financial intelligence unit.

“It's my authority's job to uncover money laundering, trace where it possibly took place, and prevent it wherever it is an impending menace,” he told the German news magazine Der Spiegel in March.

“The idea is to establish a functioning and sustainable defence system that allows the early recognition of possible abuse in the area of finance.”

Last month, the AIF reported that it was investigating six suspicious transactions from 2012. Pope Francis was moved to appoint a five person inquiry team into the bank's affairs earlier this week.

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