The recent return to the “Vatican bank” of some $28.8 million, seized because of alleged money laundering, closes a story that opened almost five years ago and accompanied the reform of Vatican finances.

In 2010, the Public Prosecutor of Rome made a preventive seizure of 23 million Euros transferred by the Institute for Religious Works (IOR, or “Vatican bank”) from an account it held in the Italian bank Credito Artigiano, now Credito Valtellinese.

According to the prosecutor, the IOR had not given the Italian bank the needed information to carry out the obligation of “enhanced due diligence,” that is, the identification of the account holder and of the origin of funds.

The seizure came in the midst of the Vatican's drafting of an anti-money laundering law, which it committed to drawing up after signing a Monetary Agreement with Europe in 2009.

The seizure worked as a source of pressur on Vatican officials, who drafted a law which largely agreed with Italian anti-money laundering law.

After the Vatican's anti-money laundering law came into effect in 2011, Rome’s public prosecutor ruled that the preventive seizure could be revoked, but at the same time “funds remained bound because of unsolved issues connected with due diligence,” as a Nov. 18 statement from the IOR said.

So the funds  remained ‘frozen’ in Italy for almost four years, and have been repatriated to the Vatican only recently.

In the course of these almost five years, there can be identified two different seasons in the Vatican's path toward financial transparency.

The first season is that of emergency: the Vatican needed to solve concrete problems, such as the seizure of funds in Italy, and so it oriented towards a bilateral policy with its Italian neighbor, as the choice of Italians for the key posts in the IOR and of then newly-founded Financial Information Authority shows.

This season is also characterized by a concentration of powers with a strong mandate to single persons at the IOR’s top offices.

This ‘modus operandi’ did not, however, lead to positive outcomes.

The Council of Europe’s Moneyval committee came to the Vatican for an on-site visit in November 2012, and asked the Holy See to issue strong modifications to the law, so that it would better adhere to international standards.

The Holy See was conscious that a change of pace was needed, and this how it entered in the second season.

The anti-money laundering law was first modified in 2012, and substantially re-written in 2013, while the Institute for Religious Works and the Authority for Financial Information Italian staff has been replaced with a new staff, chosen with international criteria.

The second season of the IOR has been characterized by a long-term commitment, inserted in a juridical framework that led to the issuance of a sort of comprehensive Vatican text regarding finances, Law XVIII, issued last year.

This is the reason why the IOR release may note that “the repatriation of funds was carried out because the Holy See has introduced a solid system of prevention and countering of money laundering and financing of terrorism, and of oversight.” A system that Moneyval acknowledged in December 2013.

Despite the return of funds, the prosecution against the IOR's management remains open, and with this the question: why is the trial still open, if it was proven that the IOR did not launder money?