Police officer on duty at St Peter’s square in Vatican City. Credit: Maciej Matlak/Shutterstock
As the Vatican’s Secretariat of State finalised its purchase of a London luxury apartment building, a lay secretariat official who oversaw investments was appointed a director of a company owned by the financier who brokered the property deal.
Vatican sources tell CNA that appointment is now under investigation, as Vatican prosecutors continue their look into suspicious financial transactions and investments at the Vatican Secretariat of State.
The official, Fabrizio Tirabassi, is one of five Vatican employees suspended in October 2019, following a raid conducted by Vatican gendarmes, who seized computers and documents related to financial dealings at the department.
Tirabassi has not since returned to work, and it is unclear whether he remains employed. An April 30 announcement from the Holy See press office confirmed that “individual measures” had been taken against some employees in relation to the ongoing investigations, but did not specify what that might mean.
At the center of investments and financial transactions under scrutiny at the secretariat is the purchase of a building at 60 Sloane Avenue in London, which was bought in stages, between 2014-2018 from Italian businessman Raffaele Mincione, who at the time was managing hundreds of millions of euros of secretariat funds.
When it sold to the secretariat 30,000 of 31,000 shares in the project, Minicone’s holding company retained the 1,000 voting shares needed to control the holding company which owned the building. Mincione eventually offered to part with those, at greatly inflated prices.
To complete the sale, in 2018 the Secretariat of State enlisted the help of another businessman, Gianluigi Torzi, who acted as a commission-earning middleman for the purchase of the remaining shares. Torzi earned 10 million euros for his role in the deal.
According to corporate filings, in November 2018 Tirabassi, who was responsible for managing financial investments for the secretariat, was appointed a director of Gutt SA, a company owned by Torzi and registered in Luxembourg.
Filings for Gutt SA with the Luxembourg Registre de Commerce et des Sociétés show that Tirabassi was appointed a director on 23 November 2018 and removed by a filing sent on December 27. At the time of his appointment as director, Tirabassis’s address was listed as the Secretariat of State in Vatican City.
CNA asked Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin if he was aware of the appointment, and whether he considered it appropriate for an official at the secretariat to accept such a position. CNA also asked if officials at the secretariat are generally permitted to accept such positions.
Cardinal Parolin did not respond by time of publication.
Gianluigi Torzi also has connections to the British-Italian architect, Luciano Capaldo, who in 2019 was named a director of London 60 SA Ltd., a U.K. registered holding company owned by the Secretariat of State, which controls the property at 60 Sloane Avenue in London.
Capaldo has previously served as a director of several companies at which Torzi has also served as a director, or in which Torzi and his companies have had financial interest: Sunset Credit Yield Ltd., Virtualbricks Ltd., Odikon Services Plc. At least one of these, Odikon Services, has been the subject of a lawsuit for fraud in the U.K., and currently suspended by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority.
After several other directors were appointed and removed by the secretariat in 2019, Capaldo is now the sole director at London 60 SA, leaving him effectively in control of the Vatican’s investment.
According to sources close to the Prefecture for the Economy, Tirabassi has been involved in managing several financial transactions at the secretariat which are now being examined by financial investigators at the Vatican.
“When you look at the ledgers, you see large sums coming in, moving around very quickly through different accounts and funds, crossing through different jurisdictions, and returning to the Vatican again in reduced amounts – sometimes all within a day,” a former Vatican official told CNA.
“If pressed on where the money is coming from, where it went and why, and where the money is leaking out, there is no clear answer at all,” a senior source told CNA. “About the only consistent thing you can identify is the resistance in the secretariat to explaining anything.”
The October raid also led to the suspension of Msgr. Mauro Carlino, who served as the head of the Information and Documentation Office in the Secretariat’s First Section, which oversees Church and curial governance on behalf of the pope. Prior to that, Carlino was personal secretary to Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who was sustituto of the Secretariat of State between 2011 and June 2018, functioning as the Vatican City’s effective prime minister.
On Nov. 4, CNA reported that in 2015 Cardinal Becciu seems to have attempted to obscure $200 million loans on Vatican balance sheets by cancelling them out against the value of the property purchased in London, an accounting maneuver prohibited by financial policies approved by Pope Francis in 2014.
The loans were extended in part by BSI, a Swiss bank with a long track record of violating money-laundering and fraud safeguards in its dealings with sovereign wealth funds.
In 2016, BSI was the subject of a damning report by FINMA, the Swiss financial regulator, which concluded that the bank was in “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.”
Among the breaches identified by FINMA were regular “pass-through” transactions in which funds were rapidly transferred between accounts before being sent back out of the bank.
The apparent attempt to obscure the loans was detected by the Prefecture for the Economy, then led by Cardinal George Pell. Senior officials at the Prefecture for the Economy told CNA in 2019 that when Pell began to demand details of the loans, especially those involving BSI, Becciu called the cardinal to the Secretariat of State for a “reprimand.”
Becciu reportedly told Pell the cardinal was “interfering in sovereign business” by looking into the secretariat’s dealings with BSI.
In February 2020, a second former senior official at the Secretariat of State was suspended following raids on his home and office by Vatican investigators.
Msgr. Alberto Perlasca served under Becciu for nearly a decade as head of the administrative office of the secretariat’s First Section until July 2019, when he was transferred to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Holy See’s supreme court. Perlasca worked as a prosecutor at the court, until his office and home were raided in February.
In a July 2019 statement, the Holy See confirmed that the raid had been ordered by Vatican City prosecutors as part of an ongoing investigation into financial misconduct by officials at the Secretariat of State and followed the “interrogation” of previously suspended staff members, including Carlino.
One canonist working with the Signatura confirmed to CNA last week that Perlasca’s office has been cleared out and his caseload reassigned.
While the Holy See has not commented on the individuals removed from their positions during financial investigations beyond the April 30 statement, sources close to the secretariat told CNA last week both Carlino and Perlasca have been dismissed from curial service.