Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On to the Next Scandal

An Italian money-laundering investigation has frozen about $30 million in transfers made by the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), better known as the Vatican Bank.

We have no idea what the facts are, but the whole thing makes us a little suspicious. Why, you ask? Here's why:

1. Because Italy is a tricky place. It has never been famous for transparency or honesty, and these days -- well, Berlusconi is in charge. At the very end of her Times article, after reporting such facts as are available, Rachel Donadio leaves us with this bit of innuendo: The [current] investigation appeared to show a more aggressive stance by the Bank of Italy, a player in the complex power dynamics of contemporary Italy. What is she hinting at? That the BoI is trying to clean up the world of Italian finance? Or that it is doing the bidding of its nation's power-mad leader? We don't know. But we'd like to.

2. Because all readers of a certain age will remember the genuine scandal of the 1980s, involving IOR and Banco Ambrosiano. It was pretty ugly, and ended with BA chair Roberto Calvi ("God's Banker") fleeing Italy on a false passport, and being found dead under a bridge in London. Twenty-five years later, a group of men with both Mafia and Masonic connections were acquitted of his murder. Icky-poo, right? So today, if you want to slander the Vatican, all you need to do is hint at a banking scandal, and many people will say, "Ah, yes, the same as in those days."

3. The popes and curia are not stupid people. Quite the reverse. It seems that, after the 1980s scandal, they did what you would expect smart and basically decent people to do: clean house. We gather that the current IOR head, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, is respected within his profession, and runs a tight ship. Under his watch, the bank was working toward a place on the OECD's "white list," which certifies the the highest level of banking transparency.

Add these things together, and it looks possible -- possible, although far from certain -- that what we have here is a maneuver by somebody in power to draw attention toward the IOR and a Roman Catholic church already suffering a scandal-induced p.r. crisis. If so, it is not impossible that the goal is to draw attention away from, or give plausible cover to, some other impropriety elsewhere in Italian banking.

On the other hand, there's already been a serious crisis-management goof from the Vatican's side of the table. At this early stage of the story, officials of the Holy See are quite right to declare its "perplexity and amazement" at the investigation, since the investigation may well prove to be completely specious. And Gotti Tedeschi is not wrong, exactly, to admit to a "procedural error." But he is completely wrong, from the perspective of crisis management, to claim that this error "is being used as an excuse to attack the institute, its president and the Vatican in general."

It may be true; it may even be dead-on. But this isn't the sort of thing you can just say out loud, because it looks like another too-familiar phenomenon: the Roman Catholic church whining. You know, the whole "of course the child abuse was bad, but the real problem is a hostile media environment" thing. We aren't saying that such an environment doesn't exist, exactly. But we have said many times that blaming the press for reporting, even sometimes exaggerating, your own mistakes is a terrible strategy for the church. Better to just confess and amend your life. Or, if you really are innocent (as IOR and Gotti Tedeschi may be) to produce facts, fast and furious and in public, so that people can take your side with a good conscience.

No comments: