VATICAN CITY — The Vatican said Friday that it was stunned by reports that an arrest warrant has been issued for the head of the Vatican bank, American Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus, and suggested that it will invoke a treaty with Italy to protect him and two other bank officials from prosecution.
Ending two days of silence in connection with warrants that charge Marcinkus and two lay directors of the Institute for Religious Works (the Vatican bank) with complicity in "fraudulent bankruptcy," the Vatican said in a statement that the incident "cannot but cause profound astonishment."
The statement pointedly recalled that the Vatican had invoked the Lateran Treaty governing relations between Italy and the sovereign Vatican city-state to fend off earlier legal moves against the three bank officials. Investigators had wanted to question them in connection with the 1982 collapse of Banco Ambrosiano in the nation's No. 1 postwar financial scandal.
3 Warrants Issued
The warrants were issued early this week in Milan, where an investigation has been under way for more than four years, since the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano and the mysterious death of its president, Roberto Calvi, who was known as "God's Banker" because of his close ties to the Vatican.
The Vatican bank was enmeshed in the scandal because of "letters of patronage" issued by Marcinkus to Calvi, who used them to move large sums of money through dummy companies in Latin America that, on the record at least, were controlled by Marcinkus' bank. More than $1.3 billion disappeared.
Soon after the Ambrosiano bank collapse, Calvi's body was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London. It is still a mystery whether he was slain or committed suicide.
In what it called "recognition of moral involvement," the Vatican agreed in 1984 to pay about $244 million to 120 Banco Ambrosiano creditors. It insisted, though, that the payment was not an admission of guilt or wrongdoing. The voluntary payment severely strained Vatican finances in 1985 and 1986.
Marcinkus, 65, a native of Cicero, Ill., has maintained from the outset that he is not guilty of any wrongdoing. But Milan court sources say that despite a Vatican statement to the contrary, Marcinkus has never submitted to questioning in the case.
The Vatican said, "The president (Marcinkus) of the IOR (Vatican bank), from the very beginning, put himself at the disposal of the Milan judges, to provide clarification of facts, and punctually maintained his commitment throughout the entire inquiry by producing numerous memoranda and notes accompanied by copious documentation, thus building up a substantial and loyal collaboration with the Italian magistracy."
2 Others Named
According to court sources, the warrants also name Luigi Mennini, 76, a Vatican Bank director, and Pellegrino De Stroebel, 74, the bank's chief accountant.
All three are residents of Vatican City, which is sovereign church territory, and thus they cannot be served with the warrants unless they step outside its 109 acres. Court sources expressed doubt that the three men could be arrested in any case because of the provision of the Lateran Treaty cited Friday by the Vatican.
"It will be remembered," the Vatican said in reference to earlier attempts to serve court papers on the three men, "that the initial communications notified the above mentioned people of contested facts which were said to have been committed in their tenure as those responsible for the Institute of Religious Works.
"As was immediately pointed out by the Institute, this was a case for the application of Article 11 of the Lateran Treaty, which exempts central bodies of the Catholic Church from any interference by the Italian state."
This suggested that the church will invoke the treaty again if the Italian government continues trying to pursue the three men.
1929 Pact Recalled
The Lateran Treaty was negotiated in 1929 by the church and the government of dictator Benito Mussolini. It was revised in 1984, but the Vatican City's sovereignty was preserved without change.
According to a Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro, the three men have not received any notice of the arrest warrants.
Italian press reports said that plainclothes police attempted to serve Marcinkus on Monday at Villa Stritch, a residence for American priests outside the Vatican walls where the archbishop maintains an apartment. These reports said that the archbishop, "probably alerted by a providential whisper," had left two hours before the police arrived.