AUSTRAC claimed the Vatican wired $2.3 billion to Australia. The true figure was $9.5 million
14 Jan 2021

The financial crime watchdog has issued a grovelling apology after accidentally telling Parliament that the Vatican transferred $2.3 billion to Australia over seven years when the actual amount was less than $10 million.

The Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre’s claim prompted alarm and confusion in the Holy See, where Cardinal George Pell has been caught up in an ugly internal war over its financial affairs.

But AUSTRAC has now conceded the figure was 242 times higher than the true total of $9.5 million and blamed software for the bungle.

In a letter to a Senate committee, chief executive Nicole Rose said “quality assurance processes should have identified” the error and promised a review to make sure the mistake could not happen again.

It is thought the agency incorrectly apportioned to the Vatican hundreds of millions of dollars in transfers between Italy and Australia, leading to the massively inflated figure. It is unclear what the funds transferred were for.

AUSTRAC provided the $2.3 billion figure to Parliament in December following a question from Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. The senator was probing claims by Italian newspapers of suspicious transfers between the Vatican and Australia and whether any funds had been used to influence the 2018 trial and conviction of Pell on child sex abuse charges.

The High Court unanimously overturned Pell’s conviction last year.

In its original answer to Fierravanti-Wells, AUSTRAC reported $2.3 billion had been sent to Australia between 2014 and 2020 across nearly 48,000 different transactions.

It said $71.6 million was sent in 2014, $137.1 million in 2015 and $295 million in 2016. The transfer value jumped in 2017, 2018 and 2019 to an annual average of $500 million.

In its updated figures, AUSTRAC said the most transferred to Australia by the Vatican in a single year was actually $2.6 million, in 2017. As one example of the size of its error, AUSTRAC originally said transfers totalled $492 million in 2019 when the actual figure was just $800,000.

The Australian newspaper first raised doubts about the veracity of the $2.3 billion claim when Vatican figures and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference expressed incredulity about the extraordinary amount.

An unnamed Vatican figure also told Reuters the billion figure was “like science fiction”.

“It’s not our money because we don’t have that kind of money,” he said. “I am absolutely stunned.”

Rose said AUSTRAC had worked with the Vatican’s Financial Intelligence Unit to correct the figures.

“AUSTRAC has subsequently undertaken a detailed review of the data and put immediate additional quality assurance processes in place,” she said. “AUSTRAC is also considering what further processes and governance changes should be implemented into the future.”

The agency also miscalculated how much money had been sent from Australia to the Vatican. It originally told the Senate the figure was $117.4 million over seven years when it was actually $26.6 million.

“AUSTRAC’s ‘discrepancy’ regarding the reporting of the transfer of Vatican funds reflects badly on AUSTRAC’s international reputation,” Fierravanti-Wells told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

By Bevan Shields, The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 January 2021

Read more at The Sydney Morning Herald

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