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God’s Racket: Why It’s High Time to Shut Down the Vatican Bank

Think of it as HSBC with God’s imprimatur.

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Some years earlier, in 1968, we meet the shady figure of Michele “The Shark” Sindona, who became a Vatican financial adviser despite the small matter of his past job as manager of heroin operations for the Gambino crime family. A world-class hustler who specialized in money-laundering, he was a member of the notorious P2 Lodge, a bogus ''Masonic'' lodge considered to have operated something like a right-wing shadow government. Like other Italian bankers associated with the Vatican, Sindona trumpeted his sleazy activities as the defense of free enterprise against leftist political forces. 

Sindona ended up in prison for bank fraud and ordering the murder of a lawyer appointed to liquidate his Italian banks. He later died there after drinking a cyanide-laced coffee. Some say his poisoning was an attempt to keep him from talking about the sudden death of 65-year-old Pope John Paul I just 33 days after taking office. The reform-minded Pope had been speaking out against the profiteering of the Vatican Bank, and theologian Abbé George de Nantes, among others, has made a case for murder. (If you saw The Godfather Part III, you may recall a storyline involving the Vatican bank, organized crime and the sudden death of a fictional pope.)

Too Corrupt to Exist

Right now there’s a power struggle going on in the Vatican concerning how the bank should operate, whether to modernize and become more transparent, or to keep on operating under the radar and doing all the shady business it can get away with.

If anyone thinks that the Vatican bank could be cleaned up, I would suggest thinking of the mythic Augean stables. Essentially, a racketeering entity has been operating as a non-profit dedicated to doing God’s work. Jesus was famed for throwing the money-lenders out of the temple. In the Vatican, they run the temple.

The Vatican needs cash, and as its influence in the West declines in favor of poorer areas of the globe, there is no telling what else it will do to get it. The bank has had multiple opportunities to clean up its act after noxious scandals, and has repeatedly failed to do so.

Andreas Wassermann and Peter Wensierski of Der Spiegel described the corruption at the heart of the bank:

“Its business model depends on keeping things as shrouded as possible from all financial authorities. Capital gains are untaxed, financial statements are not disclosed and anonymity is guaranteed. The bank's exotic status of belonging to a religious monarchy in a sovereign state the size of a city park has shielded it from investigations and unpleasant external monitoring.”

Here’s an idea: Shut it down. Why shouldn’t priests use regular banks just like everybody else? Why should a bank housed in a medieval defense tower gobble donations and launder illicit funds, giving haven to cheats, criminals and wealthy parasites? The Vatican bank is too corrupt to exist.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.