Vatican: Monsignor held over smuggling plot

Monsignor Nunzio Scarano is accused of fraud and corruption. Picture: AFP/Getty
Monsignor Nunzio Scarano is accused of fraud and corruption. Picture: AFP/Getty
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A SENIOR Vatican cleric, an Italian spy and a banker were arrested yesterday for allegedly trying to smuggle €20 million (£17m) into Italy in a private jet.

As Monsignor Nunzio Scarano – a senior Vatican accountant – was held in Rome, prosecutors revealed a tale of tax dodging, wiretaps and burned mobile phones which will ­increase pressure on Pope Francis to shake up the scandal-ridden Vatican bank.

The arrests came just two days after Pope Francis created a commission – reporting directly to him – which will lift the lid on activity at the bank, which prosecutors suspect may be a haven for money laundering.

Investigators believe that Scarano, 61, an accountant in the Vatican’s finance department, plotted to fly €20m belonging to a family of Naples ship builders into Italy from a Swiss bank, dodging Italian customs.

Scarano offered €600,000 to intelligence agent Giovanni Zito to hire the jet and also involved Italian financier Giovanni Carenzio, in whose name the money was being held in Switzerland.

Scarano was unaware that magistrates probing activity at the Vatican bank were listening in through wiretaps as the plot was hatched and then as it fell apart.

Zito called in sick one day in July 2012, rented the plane and flew to Lucerne in Switzerland, planning to collect the cash in €500 notes packed into a suitcase, then fly it to Rome and deliver it to Scarano’s apartment for delivery to the D’Amicos. The group burned mobile phones they used in a bid to avoid being overheard.

But in Lucerne, Carenzio failed to produce the money, sending Zito back to Rome empty-handed, where he nevertheless demanded his fee from Scarano, who paid him a cheque for €400,000.

The priest later handed him a second cheque for €200,000 to reach the total agreed, but then reported it missing in a bid to stop payment.

Yesterday, a Vatican spokesman said Scarano had been suspended last month. The priest, who was reportedly nicknamed “Don 500” for keeping his wallet full of €500 notes, and who worked in banking before becoming a priest, was already under investigation in a separate money laundering probe after he removed €560,000 from a Vatican bank account into which donors had paid money to build a home for the terminally ill in southern Italy.

Scarano allegedly then gave €10,000 to 56 friends and asked them to repay him with cheques, which he paid into his account.

Although the smuggling probe did not appear to involve the Vatican bank, known as the Institute for Religious Works, magistrate Nello Rossi said the arrests were part of a “mosaic” of investigations into the bank, which was implicated in the 1980s in the collapse of the Italian Banco Ambrosiano, in which it was a stake holder.

Roberto Calvi, then chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, was found in suspicious circumstances hanging under London’s Blackfriar’s Bridge.

The bank serves priests, dioceses and religious orders, but its secrecy and high volume of cash transactions have prompted suspicion it is used for money laundering. In 2010, Italian magistrates seized $30m (£20m) from accounts at banks used by the Vatican bank. The cash was returned but the probe continues.

Under Pope Francis’s predecessor Pope Benedict, the bank tried to improve transparency and meet international standards on combating money laundering and tax evasion.

But that may not be enough for Pope Francis, who has called for a “poor” church and pointed out that St Peter did not have a bank account.