Vatican bank chief to step down amid restructure

Cardinal Pell (C), Jean-Baptiste de Franssu (L) and outgoing bank head Ernst von Freyberg Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Cardinal Pell (C) will be the Vatican's new economic czar while Mr de Franssu (L) will head the Vatican bank

The entire senior management team of the Vatican bank is to be replaced as part of extensive reforms of the Catholic Church's central government.

Pope Francis has sought to stamp out corruption and other abuses at the bank, which handles the Church's funds.

French financier Jean-Baptiste de Franssu will take over as head of the bank from Ernst von Freyberg.

The bank will also eventually give up its investment activities to focus on serving religious orders and charities.

Ernst von Freyberg was appointed by former Pope Benedict just before his retirement in February 2013 after allegations were made that the Vatican bank had been used by money launderers.

However, attempts to create a more transparent banking system for the Catholic Church will continue under new management.

His successor, Mr de Franssu, said he saw it as a mission to "continue the efforts of transparency".

The Vatican's new economic affairs department will be headed by Cardinal George Pell, who will oversee all the Vatican's financial dealings and will report directly to the Pope. He was called to Rome as a result of a year-long attempt to clean up the Vatican's accounts.

"Our ambition is to become something of a model for financial management rather than cause for occasional scandal," said Cardinal Pell, the former head of the Catholic Church in Australia.

Analysis: David Willey, BBC News Rome

The news that the entire governing board of the scandal-ridden Vatican bank is being replaced marks a watershed in Pope Francis's new regime of change and greater transparency inside the Holy See.

It came at a news conference presided over by Cardinal George Pell, from Australia, who has just taken over as the Vatican's economic czar. His last such appearance was in Sydney where he was defending his local church against accusations of covering up paedophile priest scandals.

Cardinal Pell admitted he was not "nimble" in Italian. The domination by Italians of the Roman Curia, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church, which has lasted centuries, is slowly being eroded under the leadership of the dynamic new Pope from Argentina.

The Pope's English is not fluent, but he understands his fellow cardinals' and bishops' desire for a more truly universal Catholic Church with top level appointments from every continent.

Balance sheet woes

The bank's profits fell last year to 2.9m euros from 86.6m euros in 2012.

Its precarious financial situation was revealed by the simultaneous publication in Rome of balance sheets for 2013 of the Holy See, of the Vatican City state, a separate entity, and of the Vatican bank, known officially as the Institute for Religious Works (IOR).

The IOR moves money around the world to finance Catholic missions and provides banking services for the Pope, clergy and religious orders.

Alongside the bank's massive drop in profits, the Holy See, the administrative headquarters of the Church, ran up a deficit of 24.2m euros (£19.2m) last year.

However Vatican City state, the tiny sovereign enclave in the heart of Rome, which derives a large part of its income from tickets to the Vatican museums, reported a profit of 32.3m euros (£25.7m).

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Vatican bank president Ernst von Freyberg says the bank's problems have been blown out of proportion
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Pope Francis is seeking to stamp out corruption at the bank

The bank's losses were attributed in part to writedowns of investments made before the bank's reform programme started and when less vigilance was exercised.

The cost of bringing in American anti-money laundering experts to comb through and vet some 18,000 individual accounts at the Vatican amounted to 7.3m euros.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Vatican bank has lost 3,000 of its customers, leaving about 15,000 current accounts still active

In an interview with the BBC's David Willey in his Vatican bank office, Mr von Freyberg said he had discovered "only small" skeletons in the cupboards of the IOR during his term of office.

"There is much less to the IOR than people think. We are smaller than most small town savings and loans [banks] in the world and the same is true of our skeletons."

"Whatever we found is much smaller than you might believe reading up about the Vatican bank in the media," he added.

According to the IOR website, the total assets of the Vatican bank amount to 5.9 billion euros.

Under Mr von Freyberg's management some 3,000 customer relationships have been terminated, leaving about 15,000 current accounts active.

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