NORMAN — It might be the ideal environment for a financial scandal: Millions of dollars in assets, a hands-off top authority with higher priorities and little background in finance, a culture of secrecy.
And thus it has been over the years with the Institute for Religious Works, the Vatican bank.
One of the mandates Pope Francis received when he ascended to the papacy was to clean up the increasingly corrupt Vatican bureaucracy, and the bank was high on the list of problems.
A milestone of sorts was reached this week when the bank, for the first time in its 71-year history, published its financial statements. The documents revealed net earnings in 2012 of nearly $117 million, with more than half that sum going to the pope for his charitable works.
The bank also said it won’t do nearly as well this year, in no small part because of the expense of establishing the financial controls the rest of the world expects of a major bank.
The bank and its managers have been a recurring embarrassment for the Vatican for decades, with major scandals erupting in the 1970s and 1980s and a sensational arrest this summer amid a lengthy investigation into money laundering at the bank.
A priest-accountant at the bank, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, was arrested in June in an alleged plot to bring 20 million euros into Italy from Switzerland without declaring it at customs. He is one of at least three Institute officials currently being investigated by Italian prosecutors for money laundering.
Matters have reached the point where Francis, declaring that “St. Paul didn’t have a bank account,” has hinted that he might dissolve the bank completely if he can’t find a way to clean it up.
To that end, he created a commission of inquiry with wide-ranging authority, and named a trusted prelate, Battista Ricca, to monitor the bank’s operations. Ricca was almost immediately targeted with gay slurs in an apparent attempt to undermine his credibility — an attack that may have had a role in the pope’s famous line about gay priests, “Who am I to judge?”
Shutting the bank, if it comes to that, may be an extreme measure, but Francis appears to recognize the inherent fallacy of such a major institution of faith and morality sitting atop a foundation of greed and corruption. Not merely the church faithful, but the world, expects better of the Vatican.