A full-price ticket for the Vatican museums, including admission to the Sistine Chapel, costs 16 euros, or about $21. Many people would consider the view of Michelangelo’s ceiling masterpiece to be priceless; but for now, you can leave your MasterCard at home — and your Visa, AmEx, and so forth.
Credit and debit card transactions have been cut off throughout the Vatican City since Jan. 1 over Italy’s concerns about money laundering. The city-state governed by the Catholic church is sovereign, but Italy’s central bank regulates the Italian unit of Deutsche Bank, which provides the connections for card transactions.
An op-ed piece in Forbes called it “the most secret bank in the world.” But even if everything you know about the Vatican’s bank comes from “The Godfather Part III,” you’re aware that it has a bit of a past. In the early 1980s it was tarred by scandal surrounding the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, in which it was a major shareholder. The scandal gave a gloss of reality to a fictional conspiracy plot in the “Godfather” movie. “Mea culpa, I trusted my friends,” a prelate tells Michael Corleone between drags on his cigarette. “These friends used the good name of the church to feed their greed.”
Then in 2010 the Vatican’s bank, officially called the Institute for Works of Religion, was the target of a money-laundering investigation when suspicious transfers of 23 million euros were spotted by Italian authorities.
The latest transgression doesn’t sound like grist for Hollywood. In July 2012, European banking authorities came down on the bank for falling short of standards designed to stop suspicious transactions. A statement praised the bank for coming up with rules that conform to international standards, but it cited soft spots in implementing them.
“The Holy See has come a long way in a very short period of time,” the Council of Europe’s money laundering watchdog group said in announcing its report. “But further important issues still need addressing in order to demonstrate that a fully effective regime has been instituted in practice.”
What does this have to do with making it harder for you to buy museum tickets?
Anti-money laundering is about stopping drug dealers, terrorists and tax cheats from using the global banking system. Casting a suspicious eye on people who deposit cash by the suitcase is one part of it, experts say. Another is to gauge the risk of international fund transfers, which can be a laundering pipeline. This helps explain the severance of electronic banking ties to the city-state.
One of the difficult parts of anti-money laundering is turning down business from high-risk clients, said E.J. Fagan, advocacy coordinator at Global Financial Integrity, a program of the Center for International Policy. So spotting suspicious transactions is only half the battle — you also need internal transparency and controls tight enough that workers can say “no” to someone pushing a valise of cash across their desk.
In the latest twist of the story, the Vatican’s chief bank regulator responded with surprise to Italy’s cutoff of the transaction networks. In a newspaper interview that was translated into English and republished on the Vatican’s news site on Jan. 13, Rene Bruelhart, director of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority, took issue with Italy’s action. The Vatican bank’s anti-laundering performance was acceptable under European standards, he said, adding that the Holy See will be adopting more measures in months to come.
Maybe something got lost in translation, but I didn’t see anything in the interview that looked like a mea culpa. The takeaway for visitors might be more along the lines of, stock up on euros.