Report: Vatican official had side deal with Swiss bank on Holy See investments

News: Vatican finances

What’s new: An investment official at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State received for years a “finder’s fee” from a Swiss bank, which accrued when the Vatican deposited money or conducted other transactions with the bank. 

What will happen: Fabrizio Tirabassi is already suspended from his job during an investigation of financial scandals at the Secretariat of State, and could face prosecution for this latest revelation. 

It is also possible he could try to cut a deal with prosecutors by providing information about his bosses, including at least two cardinals. 

Why it matters: The new information supports recent findings by financial inspectors warning of corruption and abuse of office within the Vatican’s financial institutions. But a prosecution of Tirabassi could lead to a number of outcomes: It could lead to the indictment of other Vatican figures, or it could become part of an effort to wall-off top officials — among them cardinals — from any prosecution. 

Tirabassi could, in short, become either something of a fall guy, or become a key witness for Vatican prosecutors if they pursue higher level officials. It could also be the case that nothing happens.

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The lay official at the Vatican Secretariat of State in charge of investments had a side agreement with a Swiss bank, which paid him a commission fee for Vatican financial transactions made through the bank, according to a new Italian media report.

On Thursday, the newspaper Corriere Della Serra reported that Fabrizio Tirabassi had an agreement with UBS dating back to 2004. According to the report, Tirabassi, a senior official in the Secretariat of State’s administration office charged with overseeing Holy See investments, was paid a commission by the bank for financial transactions carried out by the Vatican through the bank. 

UBS, together with Credit Suisse and the now shuttered BSI, was one of the Swiss three banks through which the Secretariat invested and deposited hundreds of millions of euros in Church funds, including Peter’s Pence and the pope’s private discretionary account.

Tirabassi has been suspended from his role at the secretariat since October 2019, following a raid by Vatican police as part of the investigation into the London property scandal.

In his role, Tirabassi reported to senior curial officials Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, who has also been suspended, Archbishop Peña Parra, the sostituto at the secretariat, and Cardinal Angelo Becciu, Peña Parra’s predecessor, who was forced to resign his curial position and the rights of a cardinal by Pope Francis in September last year.

According to Corriere, Tiribassi had a formal agreement with UBS which lasted until at least 2016, and which paid him a 0.5% “finder’s fee” on Vatican assets on deposit with the bank and for transactions carried out through the bank, and the same amount for other new clients which he introduced to the bank.

Tirabassi’s lawyers have said that the arrangement was known and approved by his superiors at the Vatican and was considered a “fringe benefit” of his position at the secretariat. In a statement released to media, a lawyer for Cardinal Becciu said Tiribassi had been in post long before the cardinal’s arrival as sostituto in 2011, and the cardinal had been unaware of the details of the arrangement.

The Pillar has previously reported that, according to UK court documents, Vatican prosecutors allege Tirabassi was part of a conspiracy to defraud the Secretariat of State, dating back years. 

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In November 2020, Italian police raided two of Tirabassi’s homes, seizing documents and computers, along with hundreds of thousands of euros in cash found in shoeboxes, and millions of euros in jewels and other valuables. Italian financial police and Vatican gendarmes were later ordered to return the money and valuables, which were ruled to have been outside the terms of the search warrant and had been seized illegitimately.

The new reports on Tirabassi’s personal financial interest in the administration of secretariat funds follows almost two years of reporting on the complicated financial scandal surrounding the Secretariat of State. 

A Vatican investigation was opened in July of 2019, after the IOR, a Vatican bank, flagged a request from the secretariat for the bank to loan the department 150 million euros to cover the mortgage on a London building purchased by the secretariat in 2018.

Italian businessman Gianluigi Torzi was hired by the Secretariat of State to act as the Vatican’s broker in acquiring full ownership of the building at 60 Sloane Avenue from its investment manager Raffaele Mincione in 2018.

The plan structured by Torzi for the Vatican to take control of the London building was complicated: The Vatican would pay Torzi, who would pay Mincione. Ownership of the off-shore holding company which owned the building would then be transferred to Torzi’s Luxembourg-based holding company Gutt SA. 

Once Gutt SA controlled the building, Torzi was supposed to hand over all shares of Gutt to the Vatican, and with the shares, ownership of the building. Instead, corporate documents show that after Gutt took ownership of the building, Torzi restructured Gutt’s share structure. He created a small class of voting shares which controlled the company. 

According to prosecutors, Torzi kept those voting shares while giving the Vatican all the general shares in the company. He then attempted to extort the secretariat by making them pay millions more for those voting shares.

The Pillar has previously reported that in November 2018, during the weeks Tori was working to finalize the transfer of ownership of the London property to his Luxembourg holding company, Gutt SA, Tirabassi was made a director of Gutt by Torzi for several weeks, before being removed again as the building was fully acquired by Gutt. 

Company records examined by The Pillar show Tirabassi used his address at the Secretariat of State on corporate filings.

Torzi was arrested by Vatican authorities in June 2020. He was released after ten days, but then defaulted on a bond he agreed to pay and fled to London. He was arrested in London in May after a court in Rome issued an arrest warrant for Torzi on similar crimes in Italy. He is currently awaiting extradition.

Arguing before a U.K. court last year, Torzi accused Tirabassi of threatening his life, and the safety of his family if he did not turn over control of Gutt to him and Enrico Crasso, the Secretariat of State’s external investment manager.

Torzi also claimed to the UK court that Tirabassi offered him prostitutes, and boasted of blackmailing senior clergy at the Secretariat of State, including Archbishop Peña Parra and Cardinal Becciu.

Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported last year on a recording of a private meeting between Torzi, Tirabassi, and Crasso at a Rome hotel. During the conversation, Torzi can be heard saying he needed to realize at least 10 million euros for his role in brokering the final sale of the London building, and appearing to solicit Vatican investment in the Augusto bond, another of his business dealings, before handing over control of Gutt.

An investigation by The Pillar found that Torzi urgently needed the Vatican investment in Augusto to repay an insurance company from which his companies were accused of misappropriating millions of euros in government bonds.

In a ruling issued last month, an Italian review court found that there are reasonable grounds to support charges of fraud, money-laundering, extortion, and embezzlement against Torzi made by the Vatican.

The court said that Torzi had “openly blackmailed” the Vatican for escalating sums of money for control of Gutt, and therefore the London building, asking for as much as 20 million euros before receiving 15 million. 

It also found that Torzi benefited from “internal complicity” by individuals acting for the Secretariat of State, finding that there is evidence of “the concurrence of insiders in the fraud,” and named Tirabassi.

A report on Vatican financial institutions released by Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti money laundering watchdog, in June concluded that internal corruption and abuse of office posed a significant threat to the Holy See’s anti corruption efforts.

“The dominant typologies suggested by cases and suspicious activity reports include predicate offenses of fraud, misappropriation, giving and receiving bribes, and abuse of office” within the Vatican itself, the report said.