Vatican praised for efforts to combat money-laundering

VATICAN CITY: Vatican prosecutors have launched 13 new investigations into suspected money-laundering this year, and currently have frozen some 11 million euros ($12.1 million) as part of beefed-up measures to prevent illicit activity at the Vatican's scandal-marred bank, according to a report released Tuesday.

The Council of Europe's Moneyval committee revealed the findings in a periodic progress report on the Holy See's compliance with international norms to fight money-laundering and terror financing.

Moneyval praised the Holy See for addressing most of the outstanding legal loopholes flagged in the committee's original 2012 evaluation. But it said it remained unclear how the laws are being implemented, since prosecutors haven't yet handed down any money-laundering indictments despite having 25 investigations open, half of them launched this year.

The Vatican submitted itself to the Moneyval evaluation process after it signed onto the 2009 EU Monetary Convention and in a bid to shed its image as a financially shady tax haven whose bank has long been embroiled in scandal.

In recent years, the Vatican has written and rewritten laws criminalising money-laundering, entered into financial information-sharing agreements with dozens of countries, closed nearly 5,000 accounts at its bank and made sure it knows the background of all the clients who stayed on.

The moves have all been designed to comply with the 49 recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force, the Paris-based policymaking body that helps countries develop laws against money-laundering and terror financing.

Moneyval in 2012 gave the Vatican a passing grade in its first evaluation, and has given it increasingly positive marks in follow-up report cards. On Tuesday, it said that since the last review in 2013, some 25 money-laundering investigations had been launched.

The spike this year was the result of an unusually high 329 suspicious transaction reports received by the Vatican watchdog, the Financial Information Authority. The spike is believed to be related to the Vatican's toughened line on suspected tax evasion among clients at its bank.

The increase prompted Moneyval to suggest that more staff might be needed to evaluate and investigate the reports, both in the watchdog agency and the Vatican's gendarmerie.

While praising Vatican prosecutors for freezing significant assets in their investigations — currently some 11.2 million euros has been sequestered — Moneyval questioned why no one had yet been indicted.

In many cases, the alleged crimes involved other countries, requiring time-consuming international requests for information which could explain a delay in bringing charges, the report noted.

"All in all, the basically sound legal structure that has been put in place to prevent and prosecute money-laundering now needs to deliver some real results on the prosecutorial side," the report concluded.

In a statement issued last week after the Moneyval assembly adopted the report, the Vatican's deputy foreign minister, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, said the findings "confirm that the Holy See has established a functional, sustainable and effective system, aiming at preventing and fighting financial crimes."