The Vatican City, population 798, attracts upwards of 18 million visitors a year. Among them, scores of purse snatchers, shoplifters and petty thieves bring the crime rate to, at times, 1.5 penal offences per citizen — the highest in the world. The fact that petty crime is rampant outside the Apostolic Palace window sounds disgraceful in its own right, but every so often, it seems, the planets align: Tourists steal pictures of the Sistine Chapel; pickpockets steal their money clips; the Holy Clergy steal millions in laundered cocaine money. Seriously? Yes, seriously.
The scandals detailed here are all but impossible to reconcile with the spirit of Catholicism or indeed any strong ethical or moral code. But it only reminds us that while religious institutions might wear the mightiest cloak of moral order, to err, of course, is only human. These are nine mind-blowing scandals that have plagued the Vatican.
9. Mafia ties
Pronouncing Catholicism is a staple of Cosa Nostra not only because it looks aboveboard, but because Catholicism itself has never historically denounced mobsterism. Strange? It makes a bit more sense given the Vatican’s long shrouded history with Italy’s most powerful organized crime groups — the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, Campanian Camorra and Sicilian Cosa Nostra included. The partnerships ostensibly involve white-collar crimes, à la laundering drug money through the Vatican’s highly secretive financial management. But many even allege the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in 1978 — 33 days after his pontification and suggesting foul play—was on account of the pope’s plans to weaken the Vatican’s relationship with Italy’s largest private bank.
There was no autopsy. Evidence uncovered by the Bank of Italy screamingly suggested Vatican ties to organized crime at the time, and four years later, well, they were confirmed…
8. Money laundering
As it turns out, the death of Pope John Paul I coincides, notably, with the most infamous unveiling of a Vatican-Mob partnership. In 1978, the Bank of Italy discovered several billion lire in illegally exported funds by Italy’s former largest private bank, Banco Ambrosiano. A subsequent slew of investigations and convictions slapped the bank’s general manager, Robert Calvi, with hefty fines and some prison time. How does all this implicate the Catholic church? Calvi’s nickname was “God’s Banker” — the Vatican Bank was Banco Ambrosiano’s largest shareholder.
By 1982, Calvi foresaw the financial catastrophe at the heart of his shady financial networks and fled Italy. In June of that year, the Banco Ambrosiano fell short of accounting for $1.5 billion US dollars (about $3.15 billion adjusted) and collapsed. A great portion of that siphoned money, the investigation determined, had been siphoned through the Vatican Bank itself. The same month, police found Calvi dead, hanging from London’s Blackfriars Bridge, pockets full of bricks.
7. More money laundering
The sequel to that last story doesn’t quite have the same noir mystery intrigue, but in 2012, anti-mafia prosecutors in Italy came across some hefty million-euro transactions made by a parish of one Father Ninni Treppiedi. He was quickly sacked by the Vatican, in time for the Holy See to deny what prosecutors suspected — money laundering for a Mafia Godfather. It didn’t help that Father Ninni’s former parish was the richest in Sicily and the Mafia’s stronghold: This all emerged two weeks after the Vatican Bank’s head was ousted,as the target of a separate money laundering investigation.
6. Gay prostitution rings
In 2010, Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported two Vatican employees as accessories to a gay male prostitution ring. One was a Papal Gentleman and senior adviser, responsible for managing Catholic missionary activities worldwide. He acted as pimp. by soliciting male prostitutes through a younger member of the Vatican choir. Naturally, the Vatican severed all ties with the two. Italian police believe they represented a much broader organized male prostitution network operating in Rome.
5. Smuggling Nazis
It’s known that plenty of high-ranking bishops were openly pro-Nazi, but the Vatican adamantly refuses to comment on the full extent of its operations providing Nazi war criminals with false identities to get them overseas in the aftermath of WWII. Overwhelmed with millions of legitimate refugees, the Red Cross relied greatly on Vatican references – Nazi officers like Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie could very well have obtained their travel papers through the Church.
4. Protecting pedophiles
Possibly the biggest and darkest mark on the Roman Catholic institution in modern history is its seemingly endless list of sex abuse scandals. Pedophilia appears so rampant in the Holy See that new cases barely make front page news. Instead, how the Vatican handles this obviously long-term problem has become the new emphasis. Historically, it hasn’t handled it so well.
While thousands of offending parishioners — many in America — have been acquitted, under-punished, or simply relocated by the Vatican, the cover-ups represent another degree of scandal. Bishops have been known to secretly settle child sexual abuse claims with victims to insulate the Church, and a recently discovered internal document from 1962 — approved by Pope John XXIII — details a policy of “strictest” secrecy when sexual abuse comes to light. Does the Catholic church maintain a no-tattletale policy within its ranks? The evidence suggests so.
3. Even more money laundering
The Vatican’s rich history of siphoning illegal cash has all but reached a spilling point this year. In January, Italian financial police arrested yet another clergyman for his laundering multiple millions from offshore companies through his Vatican Bank account. Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, former accountant in the Vatican’s main financial office, forfeited over 6.5 million euros in property and assets to police seizure, including a luxurious apartment filled with expensive art and antique valuables. Facing a serious PR issue, Pope Francis now purports his intent to hollow out the old rotten financial networks underlying the Vatican’s finances. Since coming to power he’s fired multiple Cardinals, Vatican Bank officials and Financial Information directors, and he has become the first pope to excommunicate the Mafia. In short, many fear for his life.
2. Baby stealing
In 2011, evidence came to light that the Catholic church in Spain ran a baby trafficking program for decades. Beginning during the reign of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and lasting until the 1990s, a network of doctors, nurses, priests and nuns sold upwards of 300,000 babies for adoption. Just short of snatching them from their mothers’ arms, hospitals convinced the mothers – usually those deemed ‘unsuitable’, such as the young and unmarried – that their newborns died after birth. The hospitals then sold the newborns for a pretty penny to well-off devout Catholic families, and falsified their birth certificates with the adoptive surname. Tens of thousands of Spanish adults today don’t know their birth parents and, fearing the legal culpability of their adoptive guardians, won’t try to find out.
A similar and morbid operation occurred in the Magdalen Laundries – most notably in Ireland – until as recently as the 1990s. Unmarried women who fell pregnant were sent to work in these laundries, and their babies were often forcibly taken from them after the women were coerced into signing renunciation papers. The babies were sold, typically to wealthy American families.
The 2012 Vatileaks scandal probably represents the single worst blow to the Vatican’s credibility in recent times, not least because it exposed heavy factionalism within the Catholic administration. For one the leak itself — by Pope Benedict’s personal butler — suggested a political agenda (and with Benedict’s subsequent resignation, it proved successful). But then there’s the information itself: Letters exposing abuses of power, improper financial management, and even blackmailing of homosexual clergy. The revelations, portraying the inner workings of the Apostolic Palace with a voyeuristic sense of TV-style drama, irrevocably tainted public perception of the Catholic church.