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The Understold Story: The Vatican, the Mob, Super Ponzi Schemes and MORE

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In order to evade the threatened imposition of taxes upon the church Sindona divested to IOR of its extensive Italians holdings in favor of international investments, severely damaging the Italian economy. Yet the US ambassador to Italy labeled Sindona, who financially advised President Nixon, as "man of the year" in 1974. Meanwhile, the US Justice Department and Interpol caught American citizen Marcinkus dealing in forged securities. Nixon allegedly saw that the matter was not pursued.

Sindona's 1972 Roman party for the international press seems to have been part of a plan to become built on an international financial empire, probably in collaboration with a projected P-2 led Italian coup, and using the offices of the Vatican (whether the latter was fully aware of the ultimate intent of the lodge is not clear). However, the Mafia banker proved unable to run institutions in a legitimate manner, his skills involving the development of large-scale Ponzi schemes. Financial headlines of the time reported his investment in the venerable Franklin Bank of New York (e.g. Farnsworth 1974a,b), but such articles continued to fail to mention Sindona's Mafia ties. The situation deteriorated with remarkable swiftness as newspaper accounts reported major, inexplicable losses at the Franklin Bank, with Sindona promising to correct matters, but the institution soon going bankrupt as losses amounting to about two billion; the "collapse of Mr. Sindona's Franklin National Bank was the biggest bank failure in United states history up to that time" (Suros 1986). Eurobanks followed the same path to bankruptcy as more billions disappeared. Sindona' was repeatedly linked to the financial disasters, and the press finally began to discuss his criminal connections, often in association with his ties to the Vatican. For example Lubasch (1980) noted that Sindona "was called "mysterious Michele' because of his secretive financial operations, which included large investments for Italian politicians and the Vatican. He denied reports that he handled money for the Mafia." By 1986 Suros was more explicit when he explained that "Sindona..... was once an adviser to the Vatican Bank [and] a series of investigations have exposed his ties to the Mafia." With warrants being issued for his arrest Sindona, through the President's recent treasury secretary, sought the services of Nixon/Mitchell law firm to fight extradition5. A publicity firm obtained for him appearances with the mayor of New York, as well as speaking engagements at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania where he denounced excessive government regulation in tune with Republican economic doctrine that was on its way to becoming dominant in the US. At the same time Johnny Gambino and other NY Mafiosi feted the banker, investigators and potential witnesses were murdered, and an outraged Italian press denounced the protection accorded Sindona.

Facing imminent arrest Sindona generated more headlines as he disappeared for weeks, leading to a massive, media attention grabbing international manhunt (Lubasch 1979). He then reappeared in New York and "was admitted to Doctors Hospital yesterday with a possible wound in the leg" (Treaster 1979) that he claimed was inflicted by terrorist kidnappers of Red Brigade ilk (Raab 1979). The wound appeared to have been self inflicted and his other false claims would lead to a conviction of fraud. Investigations indicated that Sindona actually fled to Palermo, probably with the assistance of Liccio Gelli, the two and John Gambino may have been plotting a coup in association with P-2. Unclear is why Sindona returned to New York and turned himself in, perhaps he failed to garner Mob support and may have even been under threat, leaving him no choice. In the end he was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for massive financial crimes in New York.

One of the murdered victims was a noted Italian investigator charged with determining the full extent of Sindona global activities and connections. It was a contract hit traced back to Sindona. After extradition to his homeland Sindona was convicted of financial crimes and then the contract murder. Suros (1986) reported that "The end of the trial today resolved only a few of the mysteries surrounding Mr. Sindona....." Dionne (1986b) quoted Sindona as saying, "They are afraid I could reveal some very delicate information that they don't want divulged." Within days of the murder conviction, while in protective solitary confinement in Italy's maximum security prison Sindona partook of a cup of coffee and then came into the view of guards exclaiming, "They have poisoned me." before collapsing into a quickly lethal coma" (Dionne 1986a). His body was contaminated with cyanide." The poisoning of a man who was watched in a prison cell by television monitors and protected by 12 prison guards working in shifts was only the latest in a train of scandals. Italian investigators believe that if he had chosen to, Mr. Sindona could have thrown light on many criminal activities, including..... the laundering of Mafia money and the death of Roberto Calvi....." (Dionne 1986b). Not clear is whether it was suicide or murder. The former is possible because Sindona had slashed his wrists when jailed in relation to his New York crimes -- although it is not certain that was a serious attempt -- and because Sindona usually took his hot drinks in view of the guards, but this time drank privately. One way or another someone delivered the means to silence Sindona. Most consider it a mob hit.

With Sindona no longer available by the mid 1970s Paul VI appointed a replacement. According to Raab (1982) "Mr. Calvi replaced Mr. Sindona as a key financial advisor to the Vatican," in accord with other accounts (Cornwell 1986). Roberto Calvi was another notorious Mafia banker with long standing ties to the Vatican Bank, as well as a Mason (Cornwell 1986, Owen 2005).

After the death of Paul VI in 1979, followed by that of John Paul I in a few weeks, John Paul II was elected. A dedicated Polish anti-leftist who openly acknowledged he favored the absolute power of the papacy, he immediately became wildly popular and most consider him to have been a person of high ethical values (although the charges related to the post 2000 wave of sex scandals have degraded his image). It was expected that reforms would follow.

However, Calvi and Marcinkus retained their positions. One possible reason stemmed from JP II's dream of reviving EuroChristianity by funding the anti-communist movement in Poland. By 1980 the secure prosperity delivered by progressive socioeconomic policies had devastated organized religion in western Europe (; JP II imagined he could save the situation by overturning dictatorial atheism in eastern Europe, thereby inspiring a return to Catholic devotion in the west. There was also a desire to oppose leftist efforts in central America. The anti-communist Solidarity labor movement, for instance, needed large sums of money to be effective. This could only be done through illegal means, and it appears that JP II used the church's well developed ties with organized criminal elements, collaborating with Marcinkus, Calvi, Gelli and P-2, to deliver about 100 million dollars to Solidarity.

Doing so became difficult as Calvi and Marcinkus and the "Vatican Bank [were] caught up in the collapse [of Blanco Ambrisiano]..... The scandal has deeply embarrassed the Vatican and it has refused to disclose its full role in the affair....." (Dionne 1986a) which involved the billion-dollar plus bankruptcy of yet another major Italian bank (Cornwell 1986, Behar 1999). In this financial disaster the IOR's involvement "stemmed from its alleged direct or indirect ownership of Panamanian shell companies used to funnel the missing $1.3 billion; the archbishop [Marcinkus] running the Vatican Bank was found to have written dubious "letters of patronage' that appeared to back the loans, prompting a Milan prosecutor to accuse the bank of giving "systematic support to Calvi in many of his illicit operations'" (Behar 1999). In a major article in the WSJ Colby (1987) reported that evidence had emerged that "for more than a decade, Vatican bank officials played a more prominent role than previously believed in the tangled, fraudulent schemes of Roberto Calvi....." Investigating magistrates concluded that the Vatican Bank had been an umbrella for Calvi's operations. While officially denying wrongdoing the Papacy tacitly acknowledged involvement when John Paul II paid $250 million to Ambrisiano creditors (Cornwell 1986, Behar 1999) -- the ability to raise such a large sum contradicts chronic Papal claims of Vatican poverty.

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Although Calvi appealed to the Pope in a letter (Owen 2005), he was convicted for his involvement in the matter. For obscure reasons free on bail during his appeal, he fled Italy leading authorities on another international manhunt. Some days later "Mr. Calvi, an associate of Mr. Sindona's and also a financial advisor to the Vatican was found hanged under Black Frier's Bridge in London in 1982" (Dionne 1986a, also Anonymous 1982). His suit was stuffed with stones and bricks Masonic symbols -- and $14,000 worth of bank notes. For decades the person/s responsible for the death of Calvi seemed as poorly understood as the latter death of his one time mentor Sindona. The police tentatively favored suicide, but the peculiar setting, and the presence of Mafia/Masonic signs indicated murder. The case remained under investigation, and seeming breakthroughs have resulted in persons, including a jailed Mafia boss, undergoing trial in Rome (McVeigh 2003, Hooper and Willan 2004, Owen 2005). The trial received no attention in the states. The defendants were found not guilty.

JP II did not just fail to purge the Vatican, he acted as a protector (Cornwell 1984). As explained by Colby (1987) Italian authorities "issued warrants for the arrest of three senior officials of the..... IOR [incl. Marcinkus].....who..... avoided arrest by remaining secluded within the walls of the Vatican..... Vatican bank officials may have had their own political interest in maintaining the bank's independence. The profitable, discreet institution, with important holdings in publishing, regional banking and insurance, wielded much power in Italy." When Marcinkus and other Vatican citizens were threatened with arrest the Holy See cited the 1929 treaties as barring police from entering the Papal state to pick them up -- investigators from the U.S. Justice Department, Italian police and other agencies were stopped at the gates. The legal precedent had been set when hiding fascists after the war. A NYT article (Anonymous 1981b) details that "Marcinkus, one of the most prominent American prelates in the Vatican, was made an Archbishop today and named the chief administrator of the Vatican city-state [i. e., the mayor] by Pope John Paul II. For the past ten years he has been the head of the Vatican Bank..... Since Bishop Marcinkus had been reported to be the official who had dealt most often with Mr. Sindona, it was widely expected that he would lose his position when Pope Paul VI died in 1978. But he was retained first by John Paul I, and then by John Paul II. The latter also put him in charge of all the practical arrangements, including security, for his trips around the world." As reported in the WSJ, JP II lashed out at accusers of Marcinkus saying "We are convinced that you cannot attack a person in such an exclusive and brutal manner" (Colby 1987).

A number of other Vatican officials were accused of being involved in the criminal activities described above, some did not escape capture. Rueters reported that " a top executive of the Vatican's private bank was arrested today and accused of taking part in a fraudulent bankruptcy linked to the jailed financier Michele Sindona, the police said. Luigi Mennini, chief administrator of the Vatican's Institute for Religious Works was arrested in Rome on the order of a Milan magistrate investigating Mr. Sindona's affairs. Mr. Mennini is the senior layman at the bank, which had a minority interest in the Sindona-controlled Banca Uniono" (Anonymous 1981a). Mennini and a Donato de Bonis had their property outside the Vatican seized. The Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Ugo Poletti, was another who cited Vatican immunity. So did Monsigner Donato de Bonis, who continued to operate as secretary of the Vatican Bank after an investigation began into a billion dollar tax evasion scandal. P-2's Gelli also did fairly well. After fleeing to Argentina, being captured and escaping by bribing a guard, and eventually turning himself in, the hopeful right wing revolutionary, occasional terrorist, contract murderer and high class thief served two months hard time and years in house arrest in his luxurious villa.

In a rare mainstream attempt to provide an overview of events up to 1982, Martin explained that "the man chosen to facilitate the transfer of funds and to guide other overseas operations was Michele Sindona. And by 1974, when il crock [the crook] Sindona was a [known] fact, large sums of money had simply evaporated. Reports placed the losses anywhere from $120 million (too low most authorities seem to agree) to $11 billion (a quite feasible figure many hold)..... Subsequent American investigators into the Sindona affair never cleared up its central mystery: How much money had disappeared and where it had gone. But many thought the answers involved the Vatican bank and its president, Archbishop Marcinkus [who were] associated with Mr. Sindona's Machiavellian scheme of fiduciary trusts, phony deposits and phantom holding companies. Near the end Mr. Sindona was left with only one major backer: the Vatican bank and Archbishop Marcinkus."

For many years numerous albeit narrowly targeted articles by mainstream reporters in a number of respected newspapers have strongly linked the Catholic church and the Mafia through documented connections between Marcinkus, Paul VI, John Paul II, Gelli, Sindona and Calvi, the two having probably been murdered, as well as many others. It has the potential to rank as one of the great scandals of history. Following the sex abuse and similar ethical disasters it is now apparent that the church is capable of creating and covering up major scandals that are revealed only by strong public and official exposure and pressure. Yet, despite the grave implications of the evidence published so far, no mainstream periodical has published a multi-page, in-depth investigative article or series on alleged relations between the Holy See and the underworld (Martin 1982 and Colby 1987 coming the closest), nor has a book on the issue by a qualified journalist appeared through a major publisher. No network news magazine has broadcast a story on the subject (I am not aware of the situation in Europe), and PBS and cable documentary channels have not presented programming documenting the evidence. As a result few people are aware of the issues. Despite the obvious story appeal, the only feature films that have attempted to portray the Vatican's underworld connections are the 1990 The Godfather III, a box office failure, and the 2002 God's Banker which focused on Calvi6.

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Ultimately Archbishop Marcinkus left the Vatican. In or around 1991 he somehow evaded Italian justice and retired to Sun City AZ, where the now eighty something Archbishop has enjoyed golf and other leisure pursuits while remaining quiet (Reaves & Ettenborough 2003). The government of Italy attempted to extradite the cleric, but he had been issued a Vatican passport. Less clear is why the Chicago native was never dealt with by American authorities. Marcinkus is now deceased.

In 1999 twenty one members of the Sicilian Mafia were arrested in Palermo for executing a $100 million banking scam in alleged cooperation with the Vatican Bank. As usual, Italian investigators could not properly look into the bank because of its owner's sovereign status. Meanwhile, concerns grow over connections between the Mafia and the Polish mob that benefited from the church's means of assisting the overturn of communism. Perhaps diverted by the sex abuse scandal the American press did not direct attention to these ongoing international allegations. But a Washington Post report from Mexico (Jordon 2003) reported that a "federal money laundering investigation of Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez has reignited long-smoldering allegations of links between drug money and the Catholic Church..... Government prosecutors have long alleged.....that drug traffickers have given large donations to church leaders who were secretly baptizing their babies and attending their birthday parties..... Nightly updates on television have shown pictures and video of [Cardinal Sandoval] with the wealthy "czar of gambling,' Jose Maria Guardia..... Officials in the attorney general's office have said their investigation also involves Guardia, as well as a congressman from [Mexican President] Fox's political party and other members of Sandoval's family". In an analysis of global money laundering, Becket (2001) listed the "Top-scoring "cut-out' countries, which make it hard to trace the ill-gotten gains back to the getter" as including the Vatican City. Similarly Behar (1999) cites the institution's record of money laundering.

Next is a case that when it broke received extensive coverage in some respects, but in a critical regard was under reported. High school drop out Martin Frankel was a small time hustler and con artist who wanted to become extremely wealthy (Behar 1999, Johnson 2002, Pollack 2002). The only way he could achieve his goals were through criminal means. Despite being permanently banned from trading in securities by the SEC in 1991, in the 1980s and 90s Frankel escalated his activities by leveraging ever larger pyramid schemes into the tens of million needed to initiate what Fortune Magazine (Behar 1999) characterized as "what may be the biggest -- it certainly is the strangest -- scandal in the history of the [American] insurance industry" by setting up and then draining a shell insurance empire. Enjoying oversized housing, mistresses in multiple countries (see, and regularly attending the notorious NY sex club The Vault, Frankel's fantastic project inevitably crashed. In an eerie replay of the chases of Sindona and Calvi, Frankel generated headlines as international authorities chased the fugitive across international borders as the FBI and IRS seizing Frankel's

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Gregory Paul is an independent researcher interested in informing the public about little known yet important aspects of the complex interactions between religion, secularism, culture, economics, politics and societal conditions. His scholarly work (more...)

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