Vatican monsignor pressured to return church valuables that went missing on his watch

by Jason Berry

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

A Vatican monsignor, considered an unindicted co-conspirator by the FBI for his role in a 2008 criminal scheme to sell American church property, has been forced by Italian authorities to return valuable objects to churches in his home diocese of Turin, according to a Sep. 28 report in Il Fatto Quotidiano, a daily in Rome.

Msgr. Giovanni Carrù, an undersecretary at the Congregation for the Clergy from 2003 to 2009, is secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, a job that oversees the catacombs.

"During his 20 years as pastor in a town on the outskirts of Turin, many paintings, statues, furniture and other objects have been lost and then found in private homes," Andrea Giambartolomei reported in Il Fatto. "Two candelabra ended up among the possessions of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, former secretary of the Vatican State."

Bertone, whose million-dollar renovation of his apartment in the Vatican has drawn bad press, returned the questioned candelabra, according to the report in Il Fatto Quotidiano, an independently owned newspaper that, unlike many larger ones, promotes itself as receiving no government subsidy.

A special division of the Italian police charged with the protection of cultural heritage had two investigators focused on Carrù and missing religious property, Giambartolomei reported.

Sculptures, chandeliers, furniture and a wooden altar reportedly disappeared from three churches and were traced back to Carrù by the authorities, working with disgruntled parishioners in Carrù's native region of Piedmont.

Carrù's assignment with the Congregation for the Clergy was made on the insistence of the secretary of state of the Vatican at the time, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, according a priest knowledgeable of the congregation's inner workings.

Carrù, however, was not a comfortable fit in the congregation, the source said in a background interview for this writer's 2011 book Render Unto Rome. Carrù was affable but a tad effusive, and he lacked the commitment to working long hours often required of Curia staffers. The congregation's prefect, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, said he felt that the cleric, from Sodano's native Piedmont, had been inflicted on him.

Among his tasks, Carrù managed correspondence, which included requests by bishops from around the world for permission to dispose of church assets, known under canon law as "alienation of church property."

Bishops have latitude over liquidating assets in real estate, bank funds, investments, gifts or other valuables under a value of $5 million in small dioceses and less than $11 million in large archdioceses. To liquidate assets of greater value, bishops must seek permission from the Vatican.

Carrù's time at the congregation coincided with an upsurge of bishops seeking permission to sell properties, including church buildings. Between 1995 and 2010 in America alone, as the church reacted to the priest shortage, demographic changes and the financial impact of clergy sex abuse litigation, bishops closed 1,373 churches, more than a parish a week in those 15 years.

At this same time, Sodano's nephew, an Italian structural engineer named Andrea Sodano, became vice president of a property development company launched in New York by Raffaello Follieri, an Italian with a buy-low, sell-high strategy that targeted parish churches closed by bishops. Cardinal Sodano attended the Follieri Group's launch party in Manhattan in 2004, circulating and shaking hands.

The company advertised its access to high Vatican officials, as Joe Feuerherd reported in NCR in its March 3, 2006, issue.

As third in command at the Congregation for the Clergy, Carrù was instrumental to Follieri and Andrea Sodano in identifying prospective churches to buy and resell.

The Follieri-Sodano scheme was roughly analogous to insider trading on Wall Street, albeit with fewer regulatory oversights.

Andrea Sodano was an elegant pitchman with the right last name in calls to bishops. Meanwhile, Follieri was raising money from American investor Ron Burkle and falling in love with the movie star Anne Hathaway, who was on a roll from "The Princess Diaries." As their airplanes-to-everywhere romance became tabloid fodder, the flashy Italian was spending investment money on the lush life -- and, before sales rolled in, to compensate his Italian colleagues.

As NCR reported in April 2010, Follieri wired Andrea Sodano more than $800,000 for services the FBI investigation deemed worthless. Follieri wired $387,000 in payments via the Vatican Bank to a Roman Curia lay worker, Antonio Mainiero, who was part of the scheme along with Carrù, according to FBI documents provided under the Freedom of Information Act.

Andrea Sodano, Mainiero and Carrù rebuffed requests by the State Department to give deposition testimony during the federal investigation.

"We believed Studio Sodano [Andrea's corporate name] took in fraudulently earned money," FBI agent Theodore Cacioppi told NCR at the time. "We considered these people unindicted coconspirators."

Cacioppi likened the payments to bribes paid to the three men -- Sodano, Mainiero and Carrù.

When Burkle sued Follieri, it made The Wall Street Journal, and the FBI took an immediate interest. In 2008, Follieri pleaded guilty to defrauding investors and to wire fraud. He spent five years in federal prison, and now lives in England.

In 2009, Carrù lost his position in the Congregation for the Clergy and was appointed archaeological superintendent of the catacombs.

[Jason Berry is frequent contributor to NCR.]

A version of this story appeared in the Nov 7-20, 2014 print issue under the headline: Vatican monsignor pressured to return church valuables.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters