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Vatican watchdog reports sharp rise in suspicious financial activity

René Brülhart, president of the Financial Information Authority at Vatican City (CNS)

The Vatican’s financial watchdog has said it received 544 reports of suspicious financial transactions last year, thanks in part to beefed-up efforts to flag potential tax cheats who are using the Vatican bank to hide money.

In its annual report, the Financial Information Authority said it passed 17 cases on to Vatican prosecutors for follow-up investigation, up from seven a year earlier. In December, European evaluators urged prosecutors to actually bring charges in some of those cases since no indictments have been handed down.

Since 2011, 36 out of 900 suspect transactions have been forwarded to prosecutors for possible follow-up.

The Vatican created the financial watchdog in 2010 to comply with international anti-money-laundering norms and in a bid to shed a scandal-hit image.

The effort at greater financial transparency has extended beyond that initial scope to implementing internationally accepted accounting standards across the Holy See’s fragmented departments — part of Pope Francis’s effort to reform the Vatican bureaucracy.

The tortured process has been on sharp display in recent weeks after the Vatican signed, and then suspended, an auditing contract with PricewaterhouseCoopers. The Vatican said the suspension was not due to any reluctance to submit to “adequate” auditing measures, but rather because of issues about the “meaning and scope” of the PwC contract and how it would be implemented.

The suspension, though, laid bare an increasingly public battle between the two centres of power in the Vatican: the Secretariat of State and the new Secretariat for the Economy, led by Australian Cardinal George Pell.

Cardinal Pell had enlisted PwC to do the audit and signed the contract. The Secretariat of State then suspended the contract.