John Martin of ABC News says “Gerald Posner is one of the most resourceful investigators I have encountered in thirty years of journalism.” The Los Angeles Times dubs him “a classic-style investigative journalist.”
Posner is the author of twelve books, including New York Times bestsellers, and one a finalist for the Pulitzer in history. At 23 he was one of the youngest attorneys ever hired by the Wall Street law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. A Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude graduate of UC Berkeley (1975), he was an Honors Graduate of Hastings Law School (1978), where he served as the Associate Executive Editor for the Law Review. Of counsel to the law firm he founded, Posner and Ferrara, he is now a full-time journalist and author.
He has also written widely on investigative issues for many national magazines, and contributes regularly to NBC, the History Channel, and CNN. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, author, Trisha Posner, who works with him on all his projects.
His latest book, God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican, was published by Simon & Schuster (February 2015)
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Morris: When and why did you decide to write God’s Bankers?
Posner: God’s Bankers stretches back to my Mengele research. When I visited Buenos Aires in 1984 I obtained access to the Argentine Federal Police file on Mengele. In the police station where I reviewed that file, I came across some documents indicating that some wanted Nazis arrived in postwar Argentina with the help of a bishop and a priest in Rome. I kept that as the germ of a story idea. It took more than 20 years before I had enough information to submit a detailed proposal to a publisher.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Posner: A number of times I said “Wow.” Once was while getting my hands on the archival government and private company records that established how the Vatican had covertly conducted business with the Third Reich and Italy’s Fascists during World War II and then covered up their involvement when the war was over.
Another time was the extent to which the Vatican Bank had been used in the last half of the twentieth century as an offshore bank by everyone from the CIA looking to fund anti-Communist movements to money laundering mobsters to Italy’s aristocrats and political leaders.
Finally, I was startled at the confluence of crises — financial scandal, internecine internal power struggle, and the power wielded possibly by a “gay lobby” composed of senior clerics — that made Pope Benedict throw up his hands in surrender and resign the Papacy in 2013.
Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?
Posner: When I pitched this book to Simon & Schuster in 2005, I expected to concentrate on the Vatican’s finances from World War II through the 1980s. It was only when I got into the reporting that I kept not only rolling back the start of the story, but also realized it was necessary to bring it up to current times. I was fortunate to have a publisher who supported my expanding vision of what ultimately became a 200-year history of “follow the money” in the Vatican.
Morris: Why was the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR) or Vatican Bank established by Pope Pius XII in 1942?
Posner: Primarily so that the Vatican could continue to do business with impunity with German and Italian companies blacklisted by the U.S. and Great Britain.
Morris: In your opinion, prior to 1942 and prior to Pope Francis, which of the popes did the most to prevent or eliminate corruption within the Vatican community? Please explain.
Posner: Martin Luther would say there had been none. And he might well be right in the sense that even those who tried to discourage personal corruption inside the Papal court, did little to vet or prevent the institutional corruption that became an integral element of the church’s history. Of course, for nearly 1900 years, Popes were not only the head of the world’s largest religion, but also Kings of a 15,000 mile empire — The Papal States — that cut across central and northern Italy. As secular and totally autocratic rulers — with a papal court of hangers-on that rivaled that of the French and British kings — it is little wonder that corruption flourished. It had become a way of life.
Morris: In your opinion, of all the popes throughout history, which seems to have been the most corrupt? Please explain.
Posner: There is real competition for this title. (There is also intense competition for the “most wicked” title as murders and rapes are the partial legacy of some early Popes). My pick for the most corrupt is Alexander VI, popularized recently when Jeremy Irons portrayed him in SHO’s The Borgias. He literally bought the papacy by bribing the electing cardinals. Alexander made little pretense at having anything to do with religion. He married, had children both in and out of marriage, and used the Vatican as a backdrop for lavish entertainment that almost always devolved into orgies. For Alexander, the Papacy was all about increasing the wealth and power of his well-to-do merchant family and his financial benefactors. Before he was poisoned after 11-years as Pope, he used the Papal Army to imprison many of his family’s business competitors and then confiscated their lands and wealth.
Morris: Based on your rigorous and extensive research, what seems to have been the Vatican’s relationship with organized crime over the years?
Posner: There are two ways there have been links between the Vatican and the traditional organized crime families mostly based in Italy’s south. In earlier times, Italian families were large, often having six or more children. It was a sign of prestige to have a son who became a priest, especially if he made his way upward within the Vatican’s hierarchy. That cleric’s other brothers might go into banking, law, industry, and in some cases, the siblings to a priest were part of a mob family. In Italy, the family relationship often trumped common sense. Those family connections gave some mobsters early access to power in local Italians parishes and at times inside the Vatican itself.
The second way the mob formed a loose relationship with the church was through the Vatican Bank. Once that was created in 1942, it was not long before mobsters realized they only needed a friendly priest inside the Vatican who was willing to open an account for them. With that account, the mob could safely launder millions in cash since once deposited at the Vatican Bank, total secrecy kept the accounts off the radar of prosecutors, tax enforcers, and drug investigators.
Morris: Its ties with anti-Communists?
Posner: In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Vatican formed a partnership with Italian anti-Communists. They shared the same immediate goal, to defeat the Communist party in the first postwar national elections in 1948.
Morris: Its ties with the CIA?
Posner: The CIA first dealt with the Vatican Bank after World War II when it passed millions of covert dollars through the church into the 1948 national election. And the CIA again resurfaced in an alliance with the Vatican starting in 1978 when a Polish cardinal was elected as John Paul II. He worked with the CIA, and became a full partner with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to help bring down the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, particularly in his native Poland.
Morris: Its relationship with Italy?
Posner: Completely incestuous.
Morris: Its relationship (if any) with the Holocaust?
Posner: Too much an observer, frozen at times by fear and concerns that overt action and condemnation of the civilian slaughter might even turn the Nazis against German Catholics and the Vatican itself.
Morris: What are the most common misconceptions that Roman Catholics have about what the Vatican is and does? What in fact is true?
Posner: Having grown up as a Catholic — eight years of Sisters of Charity in grammar school and four years of Jesuits in high school — I know firsthand that most Catholics only think of it as a religion. They forget, or don’t realize, the significance of the fact that it is also a sovereign nation. That sovereign power makes it completely unique and it is in the exercise of its sovereign power that most of the problems and scandals arise.
Morris: What about non–Roman Catholics? What would many of them be amazed to know?
Posner: Most non-Catholics might also be surprised that the Vatican is a sovereign country with permanent observer status at the United Nations. But non-Catholics might be most amazed that the Pope is the head of the Vatican Bank and its only shareholder. Or that the bank has no obligation to make a profit and it makes no loans. That the bank’s only branch is inside Vatican City, and its ATMs include Latin as one of the on-screen languages.
Also, non-Catholics might be surprised at the extent to which the Vatican itself is financially independent from the thousands of Catholic parishes and dioceses around the world. That is why, during the costly litigation in the U.S. over the pedophile priests, eleven U.S. dioceses were unable to pay the judgments and declared bankruptcy. The church is organized so that when one diocese goes under financially, it does not affect a neighboring one that is affluent. And it never affected the Vatican itself.
Morris: As I began to work my way through your narrative, I felt as if I were assembling a jigsaw puzzle of a Jackson Pollock painting such as “Convergence” or “Number One, 1949.” There are so many key figures. For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain the significance of several.
Let’s begin with Pope Benedict XVI
Posner: Well-intentioned but overwhelmed by the job. To his own considerable frustration he was unable to cope with the multiple layers of scandal and infighting.
o René Brülhart: One of the best things to happen to Vatican finances in a long time.
o Roberto Calvi: Grand ambitions without a moral compass.
o Jean-Baptiste de Franssu: Top quality private financier, the type the Vatican should more frequently resort to.
o Pope Francis: It is remarkable so much hope for reform and change is wrapped up into everyone’s expectations for this one Pope. That said, the judgment on how much he achieves beyond the promising rhetoric remains remains to be seen.
o Paulo Gabriele: A pious and devout Catholic who thought that by leaking internal Vatican documents to the press, he was sincerely helping his “boss,” Pope Benedict XVI. His naiveté about the unintended consequences of his actions, and the scandal that erupted around Vatileaks, caught him completely by surprise.
o Licio Gelli: Deservedly dubbed by many Italian journalists as the “puppet master,” a reference to the control he exercised as head of a secret Masonic lodge that counted so many powerful Italians that its members were considered a state within a state.
o Ettore Gotti Tedeschi: Well-intentioned and sincere about reforming the Vatican Bank but ultimately naive about the cutthroat foes inside the church who considered him unpredictable and therefore wanted him ousted.
o Pope John Paul II: The indispensable third part of the Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher alliance to help topple communism in Eastern Europe.
o Bishop Paul Marcinkus: He was in way over his head.
o Cardinal George Pell: Too early to tell how effectively he will manage the major financial reorganization now underway.
o Pope Pius XII: The most powerful modern Pope, yet at the same time his nearly twenty-year Papacy is judged largely by the six years of World War II and the Holocaust.
o Michele Sindona: A brilliant businessman turned criminal who knew no boundaries in his pursuit of profits and power.
o Cardinal Francis Spellman: One of the greatest American Catholic powerbrokers, undoubtedly “the American Pope.”
o Ernst von Freyberg: Solid and dependable, the type of lay outsider that the Vatican Bank should have brought on board at least a decade earlier.
o Giuseppe Volpi: Italian private finance at its best, he was brilliant and supremely competitive, but also so ambitious that he was solely responsible for the doomed relationships with Italian Fascists and the Third Reich that insured his downfall.
Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the nature and extent of Pope Francis’ impact on the Roman Catholic Church?
Posner: Hard to say because it is difficult to determine at times whether Francis is serious about rolling out game-changing reforms or merely paying smart populist lip service to it. He constantly gives mixed signals, saying some things that seem very progressive and at other times embracing reactionary positions in efforts to maintain peace with the traditionalists. At some stage of his Papacy, the real Francis will emerge. There is much hope that the unvarnished Francis is a zealous reformer but, again, that remains to be seen.
Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?
Posner: “What has been your single greatest disappointment with Pope Francis?” That he has consistently ignored my private and public appeals (Op-eds in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post) to open the Vatican’s Holocaust-era archives to historians and researchers, in the hope that it will be possible to determine both whether Pius XII could have done more to save civilian lives during World War II and also to answer at long last questions about how much business the church did with the Third Reich during the war.
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To read Part 1, please click here.
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