God's Banker

One of the world's most notorious holy men is quietly giving Mass in Sun City

A woman in her 60s answers the knock at the door. I ask for Paul Marcinkus. She says he can't talk. She says he is recovering from hip surgery.

I give her my card. Please have him give me a call, I say.

She says it is unlikely that he will call. Why is that? She says he never talks to people about his past.

"Has he ever talked to you about his past?" I ask.

"No."

"How long have you known Archbishop Marcinkus?"

"Thirty-five years," she says, growing increasingly unfriendly. "And he has told me nothing. I don't know anything about the things I'm sure you want to ask about. And he won't talk. Do you understand? Now it is time you go away."

So I go away from this humble white cinderblock house backed up to a country club fairway in the heart of Sun City.

And so one of the most notorious figures in the history of the Catholic Church remains shrouded in secrecy.

Archbishop Paul Marcinkus was president of the Vatican Bank from 1971 to 1989. As such, he held the purse strings for the international church. He was constantly seen accompanying Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II, and he was considered by many to be the second most powerful man in the church.

He arguably held the most power in the Catholic Church of any American in the history of the church.

But by the early 1980s, Marcinkus was increasingly being implicated in massive financial scandals, scandals that spent months on the front pages of newspapers and magazines throughout Europe. His dealings were also the subject of several books published in the 1980s.

In the mid-'80s, Italian authorities tried to arrest Marcinkus in connection with a stunning array of crimes, including assassination financing, arms smuggling, and trafficking in stolen gold, counterfeit currencies and radioactive materials.

Italian authorities also wanted to talk to Marcinkus regarding what he knew about numerous murders. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, most every key player involved in schemes with Marcinkus ended up dead. A journalist investigating Marcinkus, the Vatican Bank and their ties to the mob also was murdered at the time.

But Marcinkus was never interviewed or arrested. Pope John Paul II sheltered Marcinkus in the Vatican, protecting him for seven years with Vatican City's sovereign immunity, an immunity granted to the Vatican in 1929 by Benito Mussolini.

Then Marcinkus was shipped off to Chicago, his home. Then, soon after, he moved, or was moved by the church, to Sun City.

Now, the 80-year-old Marcinkus gives Mass at Sun City churches within the Diocese of Phoenix, with the full knowledge of Bishop Thomas O'Brien, as investigators around the world continue to fight Marcinkus' Vatican immunity.

O'Brien is even willing to use Marcinkus and his high rank to bring star power to local fund raisers and church events. For example, just last spring, Marcinkus was a guest of honor at a Valley Knights of Columbus event – over which O'Brien presided – honoring top church officials such as Monsignor Dale Fushek, the embattled founder of the church's Life Teen program.

This while Marcinkus was wanted for questioning in numerous civil and criminal cases around the world, according to prosecutors.

Last week, according to the Italian paper Gazzetta del Sud, Marcinkus was again implicated in mob financial dealings in a five-hour deposition of a mob informant by Italian prosecutors.

In the coming weeks, Italian prosecutors will pursue new legal avenues to finally force Marcinkus to tell what he knows about the Vatican Bank's links to mob money during the 1970s and 1980s.

Prosecutors still may not get him. Marcinkus lives in Sun City under the protection of a Vatican State diplomatic passport, which gives him the same immunity as when he was hiding behind the gates of the Vatican. No cops, let alone plaintiffs' attorneys, can even approach him.

"Marcinkus is a crook, a criminal, a man who in the normal world would have served a long prison sentence for his part in a whole array of financial crimes," alleges British author David Yallop, who wrote about Marcinkus' myriad scandals in his famous 1984 book In God's Name.

"What saved him from justice?" Yallop asks me rhetorically. "The Vatican."

Clearly with lots of aiding and abetting from folks here in the Phoenix Diocese.

Who, we learned last week in the Arizona Republic, were also willing to quietly harbor a priest by the name of John M. Picardi, a man with a sickening history of sexual misconduct who was recommended for defrocking in 1996 by a sexual abuse board under Boston Cardinal Bernard Law.

Picardi successfully appealed that 1996 decision to the Vatican. In 1997, according to documents released as part of a Boston lawsuit against pedo-priests, Cardinal Law asked O'Brien if he could transfer Picardi to Phoenix. O'Brien agreed and placed Picardi in an unsuspecting parish in Scottsdale.

Apparently, O'Brien has no problem harboring men even the nation's most notoriously unconscionable cardinal found abhorrent.

For his part, Archbishop Marcinkus, back when he talked, consistently denied knowledge of any wrongdoing – fraud, murder or otherwise.

His claims of innocence often reach the absurd, though. He has, on various occasions, claimed he didn't know people who were proven by mountains of evidence to be intimate friends and business associates. The evidence, according to Italian newspapers and prosecutors, is building weekly.

Last year, he even told an investigative journalist that he wasn't Paul Marcinkus, even though the journalist had a photo of him and had watched the archbishop give Mass only a few hours earlier.

In my mind, the Marcinkus case sheds even more light on the attitude of the international church, and the local diocese, toward criminal priests.

Do you really think Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien is going to be totally forthcoming regarding sexual abuse by his priests when he is willing to give harbor to one of the most wanted men in the world?

O'Brien acts as the church acts. And the church has a millennium-and-a-half history of covering up its sins and sinners, and nobody exemplifies this truth more than Paul Marcinkus.

In the past six months, the Marcinkus case has taken on renewed interest around the world.

Attorneys for Croatian holocaust victims want Marcinkus deposed in their billion-dollar case. They want to know what Marcinkus knows about hundreds of millions of dollars taken from Croatians by the Nazis during World War II. Authorities have discovered that much of the money passed through the Vatican Bank during Marcinkus' tenure as bank president.

Indeed, a 1998 U.S. State Department report confirmed that at least $47 million of Nazi gold was laundered by Marcinkus' bank. The money "was originally held in the Vatican before being moved to Spain and Argentina," the report said.

Marcinkus has been silent on the issue. His silence clearly has the blessings of the church.

"He is the first person I would want to depose in this case," says Jonathan Levy, who leads the monumental class-action suit. "But I don't know if it will ever happen. Marcinkus is heavily protected, and he has no willingness to talk about the incredible amount of things he knows."

He also has been pursued by attorneys for plaintiffs in Italy, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Bahamas.

Marcinkus, in the meantime, up until his hip surgery, had been playing a lot of golf at Palmbrook Country Club, behind his house. The staff there knows him well.

Another person who wants Marcinkus to talk is Carlo Calvi. Calvi, a 49-year-old Montreal banker, wants to know what Marcinkus knows about the murder of his father, Roberto Calvi, who was the chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, Italy's largest bank group until its collapse in the early 1980s that had close ties to Marcinkus and the Vatican Bank.

Calvi's father was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London on the morning of June 19, 1982. At the time, the death was ruled a suicide.

Calvi had been forced to flee Italy after his Banco Ambrosiano went bankrupt with debts of up to $1 billion. Much of that money, it was later learned, had been siphoned off via the Vatican Bank under Paul Marcinkus.

The Vatican later paid $200 million to creditors after the bank's downfall. The Vatican admitted no legal responsibility, but did acknowledge it had a "moral involvement" in the case.

In the late 1990s, Italian criminal investigators exhumed Roberto Calvi's body. Using forensic technologies not available 20 years ago, pathologists determined that Calvi had indeed been murdered. They determined he had been strangled before he was hung from the bridge.

Three known Mafiosi were arrested for the murder. And Carlo Calvi and Italian prosecutors would love to hear what Paul Marcinkus knows about what was, for him, a fortuitous death. At the time of his murder, Calvi allegedly was promising to provide proof of more money-laundering activities between the Vatican Bank and Banco Ambrosiano.

"I want to try to ensure that we get to the bottom of things [in the case] and show that my father was not simply the victim of Mafia hoods," Carlo Calvi says.

Besides the most recent testimony by Vincenzo Calcara last week, testimony by known Mafiosi in the last decade has continually linked Marcinkus to money laundering of Mafia cash and other illicit moneys through the Vatican Bank.

"Marcinkus is the key to so many things," Carlo Calvi told me in a phone interview last week. "But nobody can get to him."

And Archbishop Marcinkus is fine with that. And Bishop O'Brien is fine with that. And Pope John Paul II is fine with that.

So much moral authority doing nothing moral in this case.

Carlo Calvi first met Paul Marcinkus in the late 1970s. Marcinkus had come to visit Calvi's father at the Calvi family home in the Bahamas. Marcinkus, Calvi says, was in the Bahamas for the wedding of the daughter of one of his closest banking associates, Michele Sindona.

Sindona was later convicted in the United States on dozens of counts of fraud. In 1984, Sindona was extradited to Italy where he was sentenced to life in prison. Two years later Sindona was murdered in prison.

In 1981, Carlo Calvi says, he found a letter written by Marcinkus in 1978 to his father. The letter, Calvi alleges, was evidence that Marcinkus was involved personally with money laundering. Carlo Calvi says he turned the document over to United Nations investigators.

But, as usual, Marcinkus avoided prosecution in the matter. Archbishop Marcinkus refused to talk to investigators about the issue, and the Vatican protected him.

Another issue about which Marcinkus has never spoken was the death of John Paul I, who was pope for 33 days in 1978 after the death of Marcinkus' dear friend, Pope Paul VI.

In the early stages of his 33 days as pope, John Paul I, Albino Luciani, promised a thorough investigation of the growing scandal involving Marcinkus, Robert Calvi, Michele Sindona and the Vatican Bank.

As David Yallop documents in his book, John Paul I wanted Marcinkus removed immediately from his position with the Vatican Bank.

But days before that was to happen, John Paul I died in his bed from what was officially described as an accidental overdose of medication. The pope's body was embalmed that same day, a bizarre breach of protocol that also meant no autopsy could be performed to determine if poison might have been the cause of death.

John Paul I's death was the most fortuitous death in Marcinkus' career. Marcinkus kept his position with the Vatican Bank until he was run out of Italy a decade later.

This is not the Paul Marcinkus the people of Sun City know. They have been told nothing of his past. As usual, the Phoenix Diocese has avoided telling parishioners the full story about a man presented to them as an emissary of a loving God.

Marcinkus is described by his neighbors and parishioners as a deeply caring and deeply involved priest. He often goes out of his way to visit sick parishioners in the hospital, they say. He is clearly concerned about the spiritual well-being of his flock at St. Clement of Rome church in Sun City, they say.

The difference between the man described by parishioners and neighbors and the man described by investigative journalists, attorney and prosecutors is a stunning duality.

It is a duality I see mirrored in the actions of the Diocese under which Marcinkus is allowed to give Mass. So caring in one regard, so guarded of dark secrets in the other.

Paul Marcinkus will soon be visited by more journalists and prosecutors seeking comment. The BBC apparently is in the beginning stages of a documentary on the Vatican Bank scandals. Other news organizations will surely follow as interest grows internationally regarding Roberto Calvi's murder and the lawsuits claiming Vatican Bank complicity in laundering World War II Nazi loot.

Marcinkus was even portrayed by Rutger Hauer in an Italian movie, God's Banker, which was released last year.

Marcinkus gave no comment about being portrayed as a man intimate with the church's financial scandals and the murder of his longtime friend Roberto Calvi.

There soon may be many more "no comments" from him. There will be many more knocks on the door.

And one of the questions that needs to be asked, and surely won't be answered, is a simple question of integrity:

Is your continued silence regarding scandals that affected so many thousands any way for a man of God to act?

It is a question not only to be asked at Archbishop Marcinkus' door. It's a question to be asked also at the door of Bishop Thomas O'Brien and any other church authority who has given harbor to, and provided a veil of silence for, priests with scandalous pasts.

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