Thursday, February 25, 2021

Australia’s watchdog revise claim of $2.3 billion transfer in Vatican money laundering

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Australia’s financial watchdog miscalculated by more than $2.2bn the amount of money transferred from Vatican City to Australia as part of its review into whether bribes were paid to pursue child sex allegations against Cardinal George Pell.

Austrac told a Senate committee last year that $2.3bn had been transferred to Australia between 2014 and 2020 across almost 48,000 different transactions.

But it has been forced to concede the actual figure is $9.5m, blaming a coding problem for the error in a letter sent to the committee from Austrac chief executive Nicole Rose on Wednesday.

Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells asked Austrac chief executive officer Nicole Rose about the transactions in October, and a response to her question on notice was provided in December.

“The discrepancy in the data occurred due to a range of complexities and inconsistencies in some reporting received by Austrac originating from international institutions, relating to incomplete geo-coding data,” Rose’s letter to the committee says.

“This led to Austrac’s system attributing a large series of transactions to the Vatican City State. Austrac’s quality assurance processes should have identified this issue.

“Austrac has subsequently undertaken a detailed review of the data and put immediate additional quality assurance processes in place [and] … is also considering what further processes and governance changes should be implemented into the future.”

Austrac said in the letter that it was working with the Vatican City State financial intelligence unit as part of its review of the data, and assured the committee the statistics were not used as part of any financial intelligence or regulatory analysis.

A Vatican statement called the mistake “a huge discrepancy”. It said the $9.5m sent to Australia was mostly to meet “contractual obligations” as well as “ordinary management”, which appeared to be a reference to its embassy in Australia.

The Vatican had said the original report of the huge amount of money and more than 47,000 individual transfers had sounded like “science fiction”, because the Holy See’s annual budget is about €330m (A$518m). It demanded a review.

Details of the transactions were originally provided after Austrac were asked questions about its investigation into allegedly suspicious transactions from the Vatican that it was claimed may have been used to frame Pell for child sex offences. Pell was convicted, but had that conviction overturned by the high court last year.

In a statement to Guardian Australia, Austrac would not confirm whether any transactions from the Vatican to Australia were still being investigated as part of the Pell allegations. Victoria police have confirmed it is not investigating the transactions, but it is believed the Australian federal police is still investigating.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has not answered other questions from Fierravanti-Wells about the Pell allegations, and its response is overdue.

The questions include the discussions the department and ambassadors had regarding the allegations, and the broader investigation of alleged financial impropriety within the Vatican, and when the AFP first made contact regarding its investigation into four transactions made during 2017 and 2018 that are allegedly considered suspicious.

Pell, who was the Vatican’s treasurer from 2014 to 2017, said on Wednesday: “I was relieved to hear that billions were not laundered through the Vatican while I was head of the Secretariat for the Economy.”

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