ROME–Just when you thought the Vatican‘s image problem couldn’t get any worse, what with endemic clerical child abuse and a near bankrupt American arm of the church, it does. A new report pulls back the red velvet curtain on a bizarre new tidbit about the Vatican‘s other dirty little secret: its finances.
The latest twist started to unravel in October when Pope Francis ordered Swiss Guard gendarmes to raid the Holy See’s Financial Information Authority (AIF) office inside Vatican City, carrying out boxes of papers and computer hard drives. They tacked up what amounted to a “Wanted Dead or Alive” sign on the Vatican’s fortified gates to keep out the administrators while they started sifting through reams of curious expenditures in the Vatican’s financial books.
They came up with quite a few surprises about the way money donated for the poor was being used, including some dubious real estate interests, connections to an even more dubious Maltese financier, and investments in movies that, good or bad, don’t exactly square with church doctrine.
One of the more peculiar items on the spreadsheet was property on Sloane Avenue in London. It included luxury apartments in a former Harrods warehouse. The Vatican press office said at the time further investigations would be “carried out over time.”
Among the latest of those investigations is a tie to the Centurion Global Fund based in Malta, which has proven itself to be a hotbed of corruption. The Maltese prime minister is currently spending most of his time blockaded in his office in Valletta while angry protesters demand he resign over his alleged ties to the assassination of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia two years ago.
At least two-thirds of the Centurion Global Fund’s capital assets are fed by the Vatican Secretariat of State, under which the Vatican financial authority operated, according to documents seen by Corriere Della Sera newspaper in Italy. The fund is run by Enrico Crasso, a 71-year-old Italian with a Swiss fiscal address who also runs Sogenel Holding, referred to as a “reference point” for key financial transactions for the Vatican Bank.
Crasso’s office walls are lined with personal letters signed by various Vatican secretaries of state and he has even been awarded a gold medal of merit from the pope. He alone decides how the Vatican money–about $78 million–entrusted to him through the Malta fund is spent to get the highest return.
The documents seen by Corriere Della Sera list his recent investments with the church’s money. Among them are around $2.2 million in a company called Italian Independent, run by Fiat founder Gianni Agnelli’s flamboyant grandson Lapo Elkann, who was arrested in New York in 2017 for faking his own kidnapping, allegedly to pay off a drug debt owed to a male escort.
Another $11 million went to an Italian businessman named Enrico Preziosi, who is an entrepreneur who owns the Genoa soccer team and who was caught up in a little legal trouble in the early 2000s for manipulating the price of soccer players to falsify accounting. He was fined around $15,000 and banned from soccer for four months.
But the most curious item on the report to come out so far is a $4.5 million expenditure recorded in February of this year related to finance for the 2019 films Men in Black: International and Elton John’s rather steamy biopic Rocketman, which portrays the entertainer’s drug problems and is the first studio movie to portray gay sex between men in an authentic way.
While investing in mainstream entertainment is hardly sinful, the great contradiction is that the Catholic Church preaches to the devout that homosexuality is a sin.
The Daily Beast reached out to Crasso in both his Swiss and Maltese offices and was told that he did not wish to comment at this time.
The Vatican press office has issued a statement that sheds very little light on the matter. “Investigations are in progress, and lines of enquiry which may help clarify the position of the Holy See with respect to the aforementioned funds and any others, are currently being examined by the Vatican judiciary, in collaboration with the competent authorities,” the statement reads.
The money that feeds the Centurion Fund reportedly comes from investments made by the pope’s “Peter’s Pence” charity, which is fed by global dioceses that collect the money specifically for the poor on one given day of the year, often the last Sunday in June which is close to the feast days of saints Peter and Paul.
Peter’s Pence is not part of a local church’s Sunday collection basket, but a separate collection earmarked specifically for the papal fund. According to the charity’s website, the money is supposed to be channeled directly to the poor.
“The Peter’s Pence collection is a gesture of solidarity,” the site states. “Through it, every member of the faithful can participate in the Pope’s activity. It is an activity that supports the most needy and ecclesial communities in difficulty who approach the Apostolic See for help.”
Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the fund, which brings in more than $55 million annually and is worth about $700 million to date, is also spent on filling the gaps in the Vatican’s internal administrative budget. The paper alleges that just 10 percent is spent on charitable works, according to documentation it obtained.
Whether the pope knows the intricate details about where the money goes that he entrusts to his charity is unclear. But when he was asked about the growing financial scandal related to Peter’s Pence on a papal flight last month, the pontiff did little to clear it up.
“When the money from Peter’s Pence arrives, what do I do? I put it in a drawer? No,” he said. “This is bad administration. I try to make an investment and when I need to give, when there is a need, throughout the year, the money is taken and that capital does not devalue, it stays the same or it increases a bit.” Or, it goes to Elton John’s biopic.