At 7:30 a.m. June 18, 1982, the body of Roberto Calvi was found hanged beneath the Blackfriars Bridge in London. It took a while for the authorities to establish the identity of the Italian banker who had close ties to the Vatican bank because he had been traveling on a false passport. Running was probably more accurate. And he seemed wise to fear for his safety before “they” caught up to him.
At first, Calvi’s death was ruled a suicide by authorities, until it was pointed out that a person could not commit suicide in that manner without both someone’s help and the aid of a ladder, neither of which was apparent. The murder remains unsolved. If the scene sounds familiar, it is because it was used in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather III, which is not one of the Vatican’s favorite movies.
That is how Gerald Posner begins his latest non-fiction book, God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican. Posner is the author of other histories, including: Mengele, Warlords of Crime, Hitler’s Children and Why America Slept.
God’s Bankers begins with a murder and moves onto fascists, Nazis and communists; spies; intrigue; more murder; unholy financial schemes ranging from the sketchy to the downright illegal; money laundering for millionaires and the mob; Nazi gold; war crimes committed by priests; anti-Semitism; Vatican officials’ knowledge of the Holocaust; and, lastly, the Roman Catholic Church’s pedophile priest scandals.
Posner started researching the book in 2005. It includes 181 pages of bibliography and notes, an index of 29 pages and a page of photo credits to support the well-written text.
Footnotes pepper the bottom of practically each page of the 513-page narrative. Some may find this the literary the equivalent of speed bumps. In many instances, the footnotes can be helpful for the reader who wants to find out where a certain fact originated.
It is, however, a book worth the time if a reader is interested in Roman Catholic Church and European history and would like answers to such things as, what did the church know about the Holocaust, when did it know it and what did it do about it? Why did the church help Nazi war criminals escape down the “rat line” in Italy? Did Pope John Paul II ignore the financial shenanigans of the Vatican bank in order to pass money to the anti-Communist resistance in Poland? And why, after so many years, did Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis finally begin to overhaul the Vatican bank to make it comply with world banking laws?
The book will be appreciated by those involved in finance. It is chock full of tales of investment schemes involving off-shore ghost companies, shell corporations and holding companies set up to hide the movement of money, the use of tax havens, tax laws (and how to avoid them), and financial instruments that caused millions of dollars to disappear. One such scam involved the use of the mafia’s counterfeit stocks and bonds as collateral for millions of dollars in loans.
Some may also appreciate reading about the personalities of popes, the power games and the internecine politics of the Roman Curia (the pope’s administrative wing) that make the current political games played in Washington, D.C., seem amateurish by comparison.
God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican by Gerald Posner. Simon & Schuster, Feb. 3, 2015, 733 pages.