Vatican bank reassures U.S. donors


Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Trustees of the U.S.-based Papal Foundation, which donates millions of dollars to papal charities each year, spent two hours at the Vatican bank April 20 and came away convinced that the institution’s bad press was undeserved, said Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington.

“I found it very reassuring,” the cardinal said in Rome. “The effort of the Holy See to be transparent is demonstrable.”

The bank, which is formally called the Institute for the Works of Religion (known by its Italian initials, IOR), “is just that — a work of religion,” said the cardinal, who is chairman of the Papal Foundation’s board of trustees.

Having a bank allows Vatican offices, international religious orders and Catholic institutions to handle money in a variety of currencies and move resources to where they are needed, he said.

Cardinal Wuerl said the trustees were given an overview of the bank’s operations and a tour of its offices in a medieval tower inside the Vatican.

A series of leaks of letters exchanged among Vatican officials and between the officials and the pope himself beginning in January raised concerns about the bank and about financial transparency within the Vatican. Concerns increased in March when the U.S. government put the Vatican on a list of countries that are vulnerable to money launderers, although the list says the Vatican is not as vulnerable as the United States itself.

In December 2010, Pope Benedict XVI instituted a new agency to monitor all Vatican financial operations and make sure they reflect the latest European Union regulations and other international norms against money-laundering and the financing of terrorism. At the same time, the Vatican promulgated a new law that defined financial crimes and established penalties,including possible jail time, for their violation.

Cardinal Wuerl said the meeting at IOR and the opportunity to ask questions reassured the trustees of the bank’s “ability to demonstrate not only how they are in conformity with all the laws, but that that has been verified by outside auditors, and that’s a very important element.”

The Papal Foundation uses the Vatican bank to distribute the grants it makes in the pope’s name; in 2011, it distributed more than $8.5 million in grants and scholarships to recipients in more than three dozen countries.

Bishop Kevin J. Farrell of Dallas, a Papal Foundation trustee, said, “Many times the only way we have of getting money directly to these works of charity is through the IOR. I consider it essential to our work.”

For the Papal Foundation trustees, who include laypeople with backgrounds in banking or finance, he said, it was important to know the money is being handled professionally and according to “the moral, social and ethical guidelines of the Catholic Church.”

In the popular imagination, sometimes just the combination of money and the Vatican is enough to generate wild stories. “We all love a great mystery,” he said.

The results of the outside auditors’ annual studies of the bank and its compliance with U.S. and European regulations were reassuring, he said.

“I was highly impressed,” Bishop Farrell said, “and I’m not easily impressed.”