Pope Francis prepares to tackle some of the Catholic Church’s major problems and he starts with the Vatican Bank, which has been accused of laundering money.
The pontiff is starting with the bank as he plans to reform the Church into a model of austerity and honesty.
Pope Francis has spent the first weeks of his papacy officiating at services and demonstrating how true servants of God should be.
Those close to Pope Francis, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say that he is considering plans to remove the head of the Vatican Bank, Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone, who is the Vatican’s second-in-command and is largely blamed for failing to stop infighting and corruption within the Holy See.
The officials warned that it would take time to change the bank, or to close it, but that it could certainly happen. One official doubted the likelihood that it would close, but that instead it would undergo serious restructuring.
Pope Francis prepares to tackle some of the Catholic Church’s major problems and he starts with the Vatican Bank, which has been accused of laundering money
Pope Francis, the officials say, has also indicated that he plans to tackle a number of other issues including scandals involving the sexual abuse of children around the world. The actions of a small minority of individuals has tainted the reputation of the 1.2 billion member church. Sadly, those problems have been exacerbated by the failure of Church leadership to cooperate with local authorities and to protect children in some cases.
It is expected that Pope Francis will also deal with this issue quite definitively, although no specifics have yet been discussed.
In many ways, Pope Francis represents a serious coup for the Church. Many Cardinals have been upset with how the Italian Cardinals, which dominate the Curia, have been operating. Therefore, it makes sense that after much prayer and petition, God should choose a relative outsider of great piety and spirit to cleanse His Church.
Insiders say that Pope Benedict XVI left a carefully composed secret report for Pope Francis. That report supposedly contains secret documents and a frank assessment of the scandals facing the Church. They discuss troubles with the Vatican bank as well as the Vatileaks scandal in which secret documents were smuggled out of the Vatican by Pope Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele.
Paolo Gabriele was sentenced to 18 months in prison but was later pardoned and released by Pope Benedict XVI before Christmas.
Meanwhile watchdog organizations will continue monitoring the Vatican Bank and report on its progress.
Eight people have been arrested in Houston, Texas, on charges of illegally exporting hi-tech components to Russian security bodies.
Alexander Fishenko, who owns companies in Texas and Moscow, was charged with operating in the US as an unregistered agent of the Russian government.
The indictment names 11 suspects, all of whom are due in court in Houston except for three who are in Russia.
There was no immediate comment on the charges from those detained.
However, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Sergei Ryabkov, quoted US officials as saying the charges were “of a criminal nature”.
They bore “no relation whatsoever to any intelligence-gathering activities”, he told Russia’s Ria-Novosti news agency.
Alexander Fishenko, 46, a naturalized US citizen and owner of Houston-based company Arc Electronics Inc, was also charged with laundering money.
The US keeps strict controls on the export of cutting-edge microelectronics, which could be used in radar and surveillance systems, weapons guidance systems and detonation triggers.
A Houston FBI statement names six men and five women as suspects, ranging in age from 31 to 58.
Under US sentencing guidelines, Alexander Fishenko faces more than 12 years in prison if convicted on all of the charges.
Federal prosecutors, who laid their charges in a court in Brooklyn, New York, said Alexander Fishenko and his co-accused had “engaged in a surreptitious and systematic conspiracy” since October 2008 to obtain the technology from US manufacturers and export it to Russia.
The Associated Press news agency describes Alexander Fishenko as an “American success story… an immigrant from Kazakhstan who made millions off his Texas export firm”.
According to court papers, he graduated from a technical institute in the Russian city of St Petersburg before going to America in 1994.
He holds US and Russian passports and has frequently travelled overseas to do business, making tens of millions of dollars on exports, US officials say.
On its website, Arc Electronics describes itself as a “full-service electronics supplier, serving a diverse group of customers, including original equipment manufacturers of medical instruments, oil and gas equipment, and commercial products”.
Arc’s accounting records show a “striking similarity between fluctuations in Arc’s gross revenues and the Russian Federation’s defence spending over the last several years”, the court papers record.
Investigators say they also recovered a letter to Arc from a Russian domestic intelligence agency lab complaining that micro chips supplied by the company were defective.
Intercepted phone calls and emails also “constitute devastating evidence of Alexander Fishenko’s illegal procurement for the Russian government”.
Prosecutors said the evidence had revealed repeated attempts by Alexander Fishenko to cover his tracks.
In one instance in March, he “directed an employee of a Russian procurement firm to <<make sure that our guys don’t discuss extra information, such as this is for our military client>>”, the court papers say.
Documents and websites used by Arc and its partners were allegedly altered to remove military references.
For instance, according to the indictment, Arc employee Alexander Posobilov allegedly told a Russian procurement company to make sure the end use export certificate read “fishing boats, and not fishing/anti-submarine ones”.
“Then we’ll be able to start working,” Alexander Posobilov, who is among those charged, allegedly added.
About a dozen FBI agents in Houston searched Alexander Fishenko’s firm in an industrial area of south-west Houston on Wednesday, removing at least 18 cardboard boxes of materials.
AP reports that the name of Alexander Fishenko’s attorney was not immediately available. His wife, Viktoria, who was identified as a co-owner of her husband’s business but was not charged, declined to comment.
“I will speak when I know what’s going on,” she said.
Confirming that Russian citizens were among those arrested, the Russian foreign ministry said it had already been in contact with one of the detainees.
Stephen L Morris, head of the FBI office in Houston, commented that some countries were seeking to bypass export safeguards “to improve their defence capabilities and to modernize weapons systems at the expense of US taxpayers”.