Vatican cleric arrested for money smuggling

The senior Catholic cleric had connections to the troubled Vatican bank.

The incident is the latest blow to the Vatican's image and will come as an embarrassment to Pope Francis, who has avoided scandals impacting his office. Picture: AFP

ROME - A senior Catholic cleric with connections to the Vatican bank was arrested on Friday for plotting to help rich friends smuggle tens of millions of euros in cash into Italy from Switzerland.

The incident is the latest blow to the Vatican's image.

Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, 61, who worked as a senior accountant in the Vatican's financial administration, was arrested along with an Italian secret service agent and a financial intermediary in a tale that reads like a spy novel.

It involves police wiretaps, a private plane rented to collect the cash from Locarno, burned cell phones and an allegedly corrupt secret services agent who promised to get the money past customs.

Details of the case against Scarano will come as an acute embarrassment to Pope Francis, who, since his election in March, has avoided the scandals that have impacting the office and sought to stress the importance of a simple life of devotion.

Only two days ago, the Vatican announced he had set up a commission of inquiry into the Vatican bank, formally known as the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), which has been hit by a number of scandals in the past decades.

Scarano, who was arrested in a Rome parish and taken to Rome's Queen of Heaven jail, had hatched a plot to bring up to 40 million euros (over R500m) into Italy for a family of shipbuilders in his hometown of Salerno in southern Italy, magistrate Nello Rossi told reporters.

Rossi is already investigating the Vatican bank for money laundering, and the latest arrests stemmed from that.

He and fellow magistrate Stefano Pesci said there was no indication so far that the bank was directly involved in the attempt to bring the money into Italy, but that the investigation was continuing and more searches were underway.

Scarano is under separate investigation in southern Italy in relation to his accounts in the Vatican bank.