Dark financial clouds hang over Vatican

St. Peter's Basilica is pictured at night.
St. Peter's Basilica is pictured at night.

(CBS News) ROME - All roads lead to Rome, and the road to the papacy starts here.

First thing tomorrow, the cardinals who will choose the next pope will gather at St. Peter's Basilica to celebrate mass together.

Then, in the afternoon, they will march to the Sistine Chapel, lock the door and begin the conclave, where they will begin casting their votes for the new spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, including more than 66 million in the United States.

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Today, the cardinals held the last in a series of private consultations about the kind of leader the church needs.

As they did, red velvet was hung on the doors leading to the central balcony of St. Peter's. It is on that balcony that the new pope will be introduced to the world.

The Vatican is more than the world's largest religious institution -- it's a business. It is also a business in trouble. Behind great ecclesiastical pageants, like former Pope Benedict's farewell, there are back-room financial scandals at Vatican Inc.

In an old stone tower, in Vatican City, is the Vatican Bank.

The church's various departments, its priests and employees keep accounts here; secret accounts, hidden from the prying eyes international regulators. An Italian court investigating the bank found documents showing some accounts had been used for money-laundering and other illegal -- and for the church, highly embarrassing -- activities.

Vatican watchers, like Marco Politi, have studied the court documents that verified the bank's transactions have not always been kosher.

"There was money of the mafia who was recycled through the channels of the Vatican Bank, and also bribe money to political parties in Italy went through the Vatican Bank," Politi said.

With dark financial clouds hanging over the Vatican, the European Union insisted the bank open its accounts to public scrutiny. When it was too slow, tourists felt the pinch. When European bankers suspended the Vatican's credit card facilities, visitors couldn't use plastic to buy Sistine Chapel tickets.

Thirty million dollars of Vatican money in Italian banks was seized and only released when the Church promised to reform.


(Watch: Vatican press secretary says pope front-runners "scared")

Benedict hired an Italian financier, Ettore Tedeschi, to shake up the bank, and then fired him when he didn't.

Now Swiss lawyer Rene Bruelhart, who helped clean up other secretive European banks, has been brought in.

But still, the bank keeps many of its dealings private, and not just from outsiders.

South African Cardinal Wilfred Napier, who sits on a committee that's supposed to sign-off on the Vatican's books, told us he still can't get the information he needs.

"I am one of those fifteen cardinals that sits on that committee and we sign our name to the report. I want to know that I am signing something that is actually reflecting the truth," Napier said.

Pope Emeritus Benedict even issued a papal edict to try to get the Vatican Bank to modernize, but the still-secretive bank remains one of the major issues waiting for the next pope.

Part of the reluctance to modernize comes from the fact the Vatican is a tradition-bound place. It doesn't like to take instructions from earthly powers -- just from heavenly ones. But if it wants operate in the modern world, and to issue Euro coins with the Pope's picture on them -- a big money maker here -- it will have to conform.

  • Mark Phillips
    Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.