Did the Vatican profit from the Elton John movie ‘Rocketman’?

A Pillar explainer

What happened? On Monday, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement affirming that the Church cannot bless same-sex unions because “it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage.”

In response, the singer Elton John accused the Vatican of hypocrisy, asking how the Vatican could call same-sex unions sinful, “yet happily make a profit” by investing millions in “Rocketman” - “a film which celebrates my finding happiness from my marriage to David??”

Did the Vatican really invest “millions” in the film? Yes, and no. 

The Secretariat of State did invest tens of millions of euros of Vatican money in an investment fund which, in turn, invested in several Hollywood films, including “Rocketman,” into which it invested a reported 1 million euros. 

Believe it or not, the film may be the least controversial thing about the fund.

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The Centurion Global Fund

The Secretariat of State invested tens of millions in the Centurion Global Fund. How much exactly is unknown, but the fund raised a total of 70 million euros, and it has been reported that at least two-thirds of that money came from the Vatican, including money from Peter’s Pence, the annual worldwide collection to support the ministry of the pope.

According to the fund’s manager, Enrico Crasso, in December 2019, Pope Francis ordered the fund liquidated after media reports on its investments.

The fund did back several Hollywood films, including “Rocketman” and “Men in Black International.” While those investments may have proven profitable, the fund itself has a chequered record of returns. 

In the year it first came under scrutiny, 2018, the Centurion Global Fund posted a 4.6% loss. 

The fund has links to several financial institutions linked to accusations of money laundering.

Previous reporting has established that all the fund’s investments were held through a small Swiss bank in Lugano, Banca Zarattini. In 2018, U.S. prosecutors named that bank in indictments during a $1 billion money laundering case related to both the Venezualen national oil company PDVSA and Nicholas Maduro. Funds held at the bank were identified for seizure in the case.

Previous reporting has also established that the Centurion fund shared a registered address in Malta with its investment manager, Gamma Capital. Gamma was founded by Enzo Filippini, a former senior officer at another Swiss bank, BSI. 

BSI was the source of millions of euros in loans extended to the Secretariat of State used to fund investments, including the London property deal, and the loans were allegedly kept off books from Vatican financial inspectors during Cardinal Pell’s time as head of the Secretariat for the Economy.

In 2016, BSI was shut down by Swiss banking authorities, after an inspection found “serious breaches of the statutory due diligence requirements in relation to money laundering and serious violations of the principles of adequate risk management and appropriate organization.”

In 2019, the Holy See press office confirmed that the Centurion Global fund was under investigation by Vatican financial authorities who were pursuing “lines of enquiry which may help clarify the position of the Holy See with respect to the aforementioned funds and any others, are currently being examined by the Vatican judiciary, in collaboration with the competent authorities.”

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Enrico Crasso

The Centurion Global Fund’s proposal document lists a company called Sogenel as the fund’s investment advisor. Sogenel is the company of Enrico Crasso, the former Credit Suisse banker who for years acted as a financial advisor and fixer for the Secretariat of State. 

It was Crasso who introduced the Vatican to Raffaele Mincione, the businessman who went on to sell them the London building, and Gianluigi Torzi, who acted as middleman for the final sale and was later arrested for money laundering and extortion.

Crasso was present at a meeting with Torzi in a Roman hotel in 2018, during the final stage of the sale of the London building, at which point Torzi is alleged to have extorted the Vatican for control of the holding company which owned the building.

According to a reported recording of the meeting, Torzi can be heard soliciting an investment of millions of euros in Vatican funds in a bond he had to sell in order to meet a legal settlement with an Italian insurance company.

In October 2020, a Swiss court granted Vatican investigators full access to banking documentation related to Crasso, including those held by Az Swiss & Partners, which owns Crasso’s company Sogenel, which managed the Centurion fund. 

The court ruled that “when foreign authorities ask for information to reconstruct criminal asset flows, it is generally considered that they need the entirety of the relative documentation, in order to clarify which persons or legal entities are involved.”

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Crasso has defended his stewardship of Vatican investments, insisting that Centurion was a profitable venture. He has publicly commented on the fund along with Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who served as sostituto at the Secretariat of State until June 2018, and had oversight of the department’s financial affairs.

Becciu was ordered by Pope Francis to resign his post as head of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and his rights as a cardinal, in September last year, after the pope was reportedly handed a dossier of allegations of financial misconduct by Becciu.

After his forced resignation, Becciu said that, although he had authorised the investments managed by Crasso, he was unaware of the details and “it’s not that [Crasso] was telling me the ramifications of all these investments.”

Crasso responded that “Centurion was known in the Secretariat [of State]” and that Becciu and other officials “knew very well” what investments were made. Crasso also said that secretariat officials at times suggested specific investments to him.

In December 2020, the pope stripped the Secretariat of State of its financial portfolio, and ordered the department to turn over control of all bank accounts and investments to APSA. The law issued by the pope bringing in this change contained specific mention of several financial practices linked to recent scandals.