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European evaluators visit Vatican mired in financial scandal

ROME (AP) — European anti-money laundering evaluators began a periodic visit to the Vatican on Wednesday amid a mounting financial scandal in the tiny city state that has cost a half-dozen people their jobs, including one of the Holy See’s most powerful cardinals.

For the next two weeks, the Council of Europe’s Moneyval team will be checking the Vatican’s compliance with international norms to fight money laundering and terror financing.

The Vatican submitted to the Moneyval evaluation process after it signed onto the 2009 EU Monetary Convention and in a bid to shed its image as a financially shady offshore tax haven whose bank has long been embroiled in scandal.

In a statement announcing the start of the visit, the Vatican noted that the review had been agreed to in 2019, before the current problems, as part of the regular evaluation process to which all Moneyval members are subjected.

Moneyval has generally given the Holy See positive to mixed reviews in its periodic evaluations. Its main criticism in recent years has been directed against the Vatican’s criminal tribunal, which it has faulted for failing to prosecute many cases despite receiving dozens of suspicious transaction reports from the Vatican’s financial watchdog.

Vatican prosecutors did last year open a corruption investigation into the Holy See’s investment in a London real estate venture, but to date no one has been indicted.

The Vatican’s secretariat of state has sunk more than 350 million euros (nearly $400 million) into the venture, much of it donations from the faithful. Tens of millions of dollars were paid in fees to Italian businessmen who acted as middlemen in the deal.

Last week, Pope Francis fired the cardinal who helped orchestrate the deal, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who was the No. 2 in the Vatican secretariat of state from 2011-2018, when Francis made him a cardinal and named him prefect of the Vatican’s saint-making office.

Becciu says Francis cited an unrelated issue in firing him: allegations that he used 100,000 euros in Holy See money to make a donation to a charity controlled by his brother.

Becciu and his family have denied wrongdoing.

Becciu's downfall and the visit by the Moneyval evaluators coincide with the expected return to the Vatican of Cardinal George Pell, the former economic czar brought in by Francis to bring order to the Vatican's opaque finances and impose internationally accepted accounting standards across the bureaucracy.

Pell took a leave of absence from his job in 2017 to stand trial in his native Australia on historic child sexual abuse charges, for which he was ultimately acquitted. Pell said at the time of his acquittal that he intended to return to the Vatican to clean out his apartment, but that he intended to make Sydney his home in retirement.

Pell's brusque style and aggressive clean-up effort ruffled many feathers within the Vatican old guard, Becciu among them. The Australian congratulated Francis after Becciu was sacked.

“I hope the cleaning of the stables continues in both the Vatican and Victoria,” Pell said, referring to his home state of Victoria, where he was initially convicted before Australia's High Court absolved him.

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