Australian law enforcement examine Vatican money trail

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A range of Australian law enforcement and corruption agencies are examining a reported transfer of money from the Vatican that Italian media have speculated might be linked to the overturned convictions of Cardinal George Pell for child sex abuse.

The national financial crime intelligence agency, two police forces and a public sector corruption watchdog have been drawn into the Vatican scandal, although details of what has piqued their interest in Australia remained scant on Wednesday.

Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera speculated in recent weeks that Vatican investigators were looking into whether Pell’s nemesis at the Vatican, ousted Cardinal Angelo Becciu, wired 700,000 euros ($823,000) in Vatican money to a bank account in Australia, and whether that money was tied to Pell’s sex abuse trial.

The Australian intelligence agency responsible for detecting international financial crime, AUSTRAC, revealed to an Australian Senate committee on Tuesday it had “looked into the matter,” without elaborating.

AUSTRAC chief executive Nicole Rose told the committee her agency had “provided information” to Australian Federal Police and Victoria Police, the state police department that charged Pell in 2017.

AUSTRAC on Wednesday declined to elaborate on that information.

Australian Federal Police said it was “undertaking a review of the relevant information.” A “review” of evidence is a preliminary step toward an official criminal investigation.

Federal Police also said in a statement they had “referred aspects of this matter” to the Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, an anti-graft agency that investigates the state public sector, including police.

The commission said in statement: “For legal and operational reasons we are unable to comment on this matter.”

Victoria Police media did not respond on Wednesday when asked how it was acting on the AUSTRAC information.

Pell was convicted by a lower court of allegations he molested two choirboys in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne while he was archbishop in the 1990s, but was ultimately absolved by Australia’s High Court.

Pell was brought in by Pope Francis to bring accountability and transparency to the Vatican’s opaque finances in 2014.

The Italian newspaper speculated that Becciu might have “bought” the testimony of Pell’s accuser to get Pell out of the Vatican. Becciu and Pell were known to have clashed over the Australian’s financial clean-up efforts at the Holy See. The accuser, who cannot be identified, has denied the allegation.

The newspaper report had no sourcing, attributions or detail and appeared more an effort to discredit Becciu and distract attention from the shortcomings of the Vatican prosecutors’ primary investigation into a London real estate venture.

Pell returned to the Vatican this month for a meeting with Francis and to clear out his apartment after Becciu was fired over allegations that he wired 100,000 euros ($118,000) in Vatican funds to a charity headed by his brother. Becciu has denied wrongdoing.

Becciu has repeatedly denied involvement in Pell’s 2018 conviction.

Becciu’s lawyer Fabio Viglione said his client had “never interfered with it in any way whatsoever.”

“Given the apparent will of some news organizations to falsely depict an alleged, albeit non-existent, activity to taint the evidence of Cardinal Pell’s trial, Cardinal Becciu will promptly resort to the Judicial Authorities to protect and defend his honor, so gravely damaged,” Viglione said in a statement.

Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter has previously called for an investigation of media allegations of a Vatican money trail to Australia and the potential for bribery. Richter did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

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