ROME — The Australian government’s financial intelligence agency said Thursday it is reviewing its data after questions were raised about its report that $1.8 billion were transferred from the Vatican to Australia over six years.
The agency, Austrac, said it was working with the Vatican to get to the bottom of the matter. The Vatican confirmed it was in contact with Austrac regarding “an examination of the data that it (Austrac) provided in recent days."
Austrac listed the annual transactions since 2014 in response to a parliamentary inquiry without providing any details about senders or recipients. The agency monitors financial transactions to identify money laundering, organized crime, tax evasion, welfare fraud and terrorism financing.
The data raised eyebrows in Australia and the Holy See, given the number of transfers and amounts that appeared to be greatly out of line with the Vatican’s financial reality. It also fueled media speculation that money from the Holy See helped influence the Australian criminal prosecution of Cardinal George Pell, who was convicted and then acquitted of historic sex abuse.
“Austrac is currently undertaking a detailed review of the figures and is working with the Holy See and Vatican City State Financial Intelligence Unit on this matter,” the agency said in response to a query from The Associated Press.
Vatican officials have expressed perplexity at the reported transfers. The amounts greatly exceed the finances of the Holy See, the government of the Catholic Church. It runs on an annual budget of around 300 million euros ($368.2 million) -- less than the amount reported to have been sent to Australia in a single year.
The Vatican City State has one bank, with total client assets of 5.1 billion euros ($6.3 billion). Two-thirds of those assets are held in managed portfolios that belong to the bank's 15,000 clients, most of them religious orders, Vatican employees, Holy See offices and embassies around the world.
Australia’s bishops have also expressed puzzlement and were seeking clarity. Australian Catholic Bishop's Conference spokesman Gavin Abraham said the bishops had no knowledge of the transfers and that none of the money was received by dioceses, charities or other Catholic entities.
Austrac's Vatican figures appear to be derived from a chart the agency published last year in response to a question under Australia’s Freedom of Information Act. The chart lists every country's flow of money to and from Australia, and appears to include remittances. It shows billions of dollars passing through Australia every year from countries big and small.
Pell had clashed with the Vatican’s old guard over his financial reform efforts, which he had to abandon in 2017 to face trial. Pell himself has suggested that his prosecution was related to his work trying to clean up the Vatican's murky finances and the resistance he faced, but also acknowledged he has no evidence.
Australia’s police previously said they weren’t investigating the money flows; Pell’s accuser has denied receiving any payment for his testimony.
Rod McGuirk contributed from Canberra, Australia.
Nicole Winfield, The Associated Press