ROME -- A senior accountant in the Vatican’s finance department, an Italian intelligence agent and a banker were arrested Friday on suspicion of trying to smuggle the equivalent of $26 million into Italy in a private jet as part of a tax-dodging plot.
The arrests came just two days after Pope Francis created a commission reporting directly to him to monitor the Vatican's scandal-plagued bank.
Investigators alleged that Nunzio Scarano, 61, a cleric who was recently put on suspension as a senior accountant to the Holy See, planned to fly money belonging to a family of Naples shipbuilders into Italy from a Swiss bank, helping his friends dodge Italian customs.
According to the investigators, Scarano offered $780,000 to agent Giovanni Zito -- who was removed from service three months ago, according to Italian media reports -- to hire the jet and also involved Italian financier Giovanni Carenzio, in whose name the money was being held in Switzerland.
Zito took sick leave in July 2012, rented the plane and flew to Lucerne in Switzerland, investigators said. He allegedly planned to collect the cash, fly it to Rome and hand it over to Scarano for delivery to the D'Amico family.
But in Lucerne, Carenzio failed to produce the money, and Zito returned to Rome empty-handed, where he nevertheless demanded his fee from Scarano, investigators said. The cleric allegedly paid him by check for a portion of the total, gave him a second check for the balance due, but then reported the second check as missing in a bid to stop payment.
The priest, who worked in banking before being ordained, was already under investigation in a separate probe after he allegedly withdrew $728,000 to pay his mortgage from a Vatican bank account that held donations to build a home for the terminally ill in southern Italy.
While the recent incident did not appear to involve the Vatican bank, known as the Institute for Religious Works, magistrate Nello Rossi told the Associated Press the arrests were part of a “mosaic” of investigations into the bank. It was implicated in the 1980s in the collapse of the Italian Banco Ambrosiano, in which the Vatican bank was a stakeholder. Roberto Calvi, then-chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, was found hanging under London’s Blackfriars Bridge in suspicious circumstances.
In 2010, Italian magistrates investigating money laundering seized $30 million from accounts at banks used by the Vatican bank. The cash was returned but the probe continues.
Under recently retired Pope Benedict XVI, the bank tried to improve transparency and meet international standards on combating money laundering and tax evasion.
Pope Francis, who has called for a “poor” church, this week announced a new commission to monitor the bank’s activities, which includes Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, a former United States ambassador to the Holy See.
[For the record, 2:32 p.m. June 28: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated in the headline that the three men were arrested on corruption charges, and the story incorrectly reported that they were charged with corruption and fraud. Though the men were arrested on suspicion of corruption and fraud, no formal charges had been filed.]