By RACHEL DONADIO and ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
Claiming to have foiled a caper worthy of Hollywood, or at least Cinecittà, the Italian police on Friday arrested a prelate and two others on corruption charges as part of a complex plot last summer in which they say the priest — already suspected of money laundering — plotted to help wealthy friends sneak the money, the equivalent of about $26 million, into Italy while evading financial controls.
Along with the prelate, a financial broker and a military police agent deployed to the Italian Secret Service were arrested and charged with corruption, and the priest also with slander, in an investigation that developed out of a broader three-year inquiry into the Vatican Bank. The case is the latest black mark on the bank, which under Pope Francis and Benedict XVI has been trying to shake its image as a secretive offshore haven and bring itself into compliance with European norms so that it could use the euro.
Rome prosecutors say the three men hired a private plane last July with the intention of bringing the cash into Italy from Locarno, Switzerland. The money was to be carried by the Secret Service agent, who would not be required to declare it at the border. But the scheme fell through, the prosecutors said, as the three began bickering and, eventually, lost their nerve. Cellphones used by the three in arranging the money transfer were later burned, prosecutors said.
The European Union and the United States have served notice in recent years that they will no longer tolerate tax havens like Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands, and the wall of secrecy they flourished behind. As a result, major account holders have been growing increasingly nervous.
Nello Rossi, the Rome prosecutor who led the investigation, said that wiretaps had picked up people discussing how the 20 million euros in Switzerland was tied to the D’Amico family, Salerno shipping magnates.
Even before his arrest on Friday, the prelate, Msgr. Nunzio Scarano, was no stranger to the authorities. An employee of Deutsche Bank before entering the priesthood, and until recently an accountant in a top Vatican financial office that oversees the Catholic Church’s real estate holdings, Monsignor Scarano was under investigation by magistrates in Salerno on accusations that he had illegally moved $730,000 in cash from his account in the Vatican Bank to Italian banks, his lawyer said.
In a statement on Friday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that Monsignor Scarano had been suspended from his position at the Vatican “more than a month ago, ever since his superiors were informed that he was under investigation.”
He added that the Holy See “has not yet received any requests from the competent Italian authorities, but confirms its willingness for full collaboration,” and that the Vatican’s internal financial watchdog was following the matter and would take “if necessary, the appropriate measures in its competency.” That could include requesting that a Vatican prosecutor open an internal investigation into the monsignor.
Rome prosecutors accuse Monsignor Scarano of having engaged Giovanni Maria Zito, a military police officer at the time working for Italy’s domestic secret service, to recover the $26 million in Switzerland and bring it to Italy, said Silverio Sica, Monsignor Scarano’s lawyer.
The money belonged to friends of the prelate, who had invested the sums in Switzerland with Giovanni Carenzio, a broker, but now wanted the money back. Monsignor Scarano entrusted the task to Mr. Zito, who as a secret service officer would not have to pass through customs. “Don Nunzio was only an intermediary to try and recover this money,” Mr. Sica said.
When he got to Switzerland last year, Mr. Zito was unable to retrieve the funds because disagreements arose with Mr. Carenzio, so he returned to Italy and demanded the $780,000 that he had been promised to act as the courier.