Developers acting for the Vatican Secretariat of State offered to raze a London parish hall and rectory and replace it with low-cost housing, in order to try to push through a luxury apartment development. The luxury development project involves two recently suspended Vatican employees, and a nest of Vatican-controlled holding companies led by an architect linked to accusations of money laundering and fraud involving Vatican accounts.
In a June 2016 proposal submitted to local authorities in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a developer seeking permission to develop luxury apartments at 60 Sloane Ave offered London’s St. Pius X parish hall and rectory as a location for building the low-income housing required by law to offset the luxury development.
The inclusion of the parish property in the planning application was facilitated by officials at the Vatican Secretariat of State, who visited the parish and worked with the local Archdiocese of Westminster to secure the cooperation of the parish pastor.
The involvement of the Vatican in developing the proposal comes to light after Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who authorized the Vatican’s investment, described the Holy See’s involvement in the real estate development as a matter of ordinary business, denying there was anything suspicious about the transaction.
“It is accepted practice for the Holy See to invest in property, it has always done so: in Rome, in Paris, in Switzerland and also in London,” Becciu said in October, insisting that the deal was “regular and registered according to law.”
The planning application was submitted on behalf of 60 SA Ltd., a private holding company registered in Jersey, a tax shelter in the Channel Islands, which owns the building and in which the Vatican had invested $200 million in borrowed money.
The parish property was that of St. Pius X parish in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood.
Fr. Peter Wilson, pastor of St. Pius X, said officials from the Archdiocese of Westminster visited his parish before the proposal was submitted, along with an unnamed official from the Holy See, who outlined plans for the property, which would have incorporated substantial low-income housing units into a new mixed use development.
“I knew that there was somebody from the Holy See coming along, whom I met, but I didn’t know why he was involved,” Wilson said. “The wider provenance of the plan was never vouchsafed to me.”
“They were going to knock down the presbytery and build a block of flats here. They told me I could have one flat in the block of flats and my heart rather sank, but who am I to argue with those above my station?”
The low-income housing proposal was turned down by London development authorities, who said it was haphazard, and noted there is no shortage of low income housing in the area of the parish, several miles from the luxury development. The developers eventually offered local authorities £12 million in lieu of the affordable housing requirement, in order for the luxury development to be approved.
The parish proposal suggests the involvement of Vatican officials in the development project was considerably more expansive than initially reported, as Church officials were a part of the development’s early planning details, rather than simply passive investors.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Westminster told CNA it “is often approached by developers or boroughs to take proceeds of the infrastructure levy or help with their social housing quota. Diocesan officers always review these proposals to see whether they offer long term benefits to the community and the mission of the Church.”
Regarding the proposal for St. Pius X, the archdiocese said that “In this instance, the developer, CapInvest, approached us in 2014 with such an offer. 79 St Charles Square was identified as a possible location for redevelopment, providing both accommodation for the parish clergy and a number of much-needed social housing units in the area. We agreed to meet with the developer to commence discussions.”
WRM CapInvest is an investment company owned by Raffaele Mincione, who owned the Chelsea building through a holding company, 60 SA Ltd. Mincione sold a share in the holding company, and eventually the entire thing, to the Secretariat of State. Another of Mincione’s companies, Athena Capital, a Luxembourg investment fund, acted as the vehicle for the Vatican’s investment.
“At no time did the developer disclose any connection between this project and the Holy See. Equally, no one from the Holy See contacted the Diocese about this project. We only became aware of this possible connection when [CNA] contacted [the archdiocese].”
Fr. Wilson told CNA it was a Vatican official who presented the plan to him, alongside archdiocesan officers.
He added that the idea was presented as beyond his power to prevent, despite canonical norms that ensure decisions about parish property are the purview of the pastor, not the Holy See or the local bishop.
The London property investment points to a network unsavory financial actors and unseemly practices involved in the Vatican’s London investment, even amid repeated efforts to bring financial practices into line with international practices and standards.
CNA has reported that the London investment was funded by a $200 million short-term loan arranged through Swiss banks, along with a nearly $50 million 2018 investment in the same property, bringing it completely under Vatican ownership. Rather than buying the building outright from 60 SA Ltd., Mincione’s holding company, the Secretariat of State instead took that company over in 2018, setting up a new London company to control the investment.
According to the Financial Times, Mincione sold his personal stake in the property to the Vatican at “a significantly higher price than he had paid for it two years earlier.”
Last month, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, said the investment was unique in some ways, and that the fund in question appeared to be “well managed.” He said that he was working to clear up questions about the project.
“We are working to clear up everything. This deal was rather opaque and now we are trying to clear it up,” Parolin said.
Also last month, former sostituto at the Secretariat of State Cardinal Angelo Becciu strongly denied any impropriety in the deal, responding to what he called “slanderous charges” that he had “played with and tampered with the money of the poor" in the 2014 transaction, the cardinal defended the investment last month, saying it was “accepted practice.”
The London property investment is believed to be at the center of an ongoing investigation by Vatican prosecutors who, in October, raided the offices of the Secretariat of State and the Vatican’s own financial watchdog.
Among those suspended following the raids was Msgr. Mauro Carlino, an official at the Secretariat of State. Carlino was listed in May, 2019, as a director of a company called “London 60 SA Ltd.,” the holding company incorporated in the United Kingdom, through which the Secretariat of State controls the Jersey-based 60 SA Ltd., which in turn owns the property on Sloane Ave.
The UK’s registrar of companies lists the Holy See Secretariat of State as the single shareholder and legal person with “significant control” of the London company, and the right to appoint and remove directors. Public records show Carlino was terminated as a director in August, 2019, two months before the Vatican raid.
Among the other registered directors of London 60 SA Ltd. is Mr. Luciano Capaldo, an architect. According to his resumé Capaldo specializes in “real estate valuation” and “project-property design and management.”
In filings officially approved by the Secretariat of State concerning his initial appointment as a director for London 60 SA Ltd. in May 2019, Capaldo was identified as a “Vatican citizen.” A subsequent filing changed Capaldo’s nationality of record to British and Italian.
According to British corporate filing requirements, only an agent of the Secretariat of State or the first officer of the holding company could file a document appointing Capaldo as a director.
In practice this means only Parolin, Becciu, or Dr. Caterina Sansone, who was the company’s sole officer at the time of Capaldo’s appointment, would have filed the legal appointment that listed Capaldo as a Vatican citizen.
Sansone was among the Vatican employees suspended in the October raid of the Secretariat of State by Vatican prosecutors.
It is not clear whether the document listing Capaldo as a Vatican citizen was in error, or whether the architect had in fact been granted a Vatican passport, but Capaldo himself was required to countersign the document identifying him as a citizen of the Vatican.
Citizenship of the Vatican City State is sometimes afforded to lay employees working in the curia, but is only granted to those living within the territory of Vatican City itself, and forfeited upon departure. Vatican citizenship has also sometimes been granted to lay people as a personal favor by curial officials, because it confers several benefits, and the Vatican does not assess an income tax.
The Secretariat of State issues a small number of passports for travel in the name of the Holy See, reserved to clerics engaged on diplomatic service for the Holy See and carrying with them diplomatic immunity.
It is unclear what, if any, role Capaldo has in curial service, or why he might have been granted citizenship by the Secretariat of State if his job is to run a property investment in London.
Vatican citizenship could carry with it the benefit of access to banking privileges either of the Holy See’s two financial institutions, the IOR, which functions as a deposit bank, and APSA, which acts as the Vatican’s reserve bank and sovereign wealth fund. Such funds have been used in the past by private individuals seeking to skirt international banking regulations and external scrutiny of business deals.
According to the terms of an agreement reached with Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering watchdog, following a 2012 on-site inspection, exempting it from future inspections, APSA was required to close a number of accounts held for private individuals, including senior churchmen and Vatican citizens. Senior sources at APSA and the Vatican’s Prefecture for the Economy told CNA that several of these accounts are still in operation but had been anonymized following the Moneyval agreement.
“Essentially, named accounts became private numbered accounts,” one senior official told CNA. “Looking at the account ledgers, there is no way to tell the difference between an individual or institution as the account holder, it’s just a number.”
“They were supposed to all be closed down, and some of them were. But no one is being made to do anything - some of the accounts are still very much on the books.”
Though apparently living in London, Capaldo is a major shareholder and former chairman of an Italian real estate company called Imvest, which describes its business as “buying and selling real estates, as well as managing the construction of buildings, blocks and lots mainly for individual clients” and “facility management and services of territories and properties for tenants, private clients and public institutions.”
Among the company’s principal shareholders is a private, family-owned Italian bank named Banca Finnat Euroamerica S.p.A., which is controlled by the Nattino family.
In 2017, Italian financial authorities froze 2.5 million euros is assets belonging to Giampiero Nattino, who was then the bank’s chairman, saying that he had used personal accounts held at both IOR and APSA to commit a string of offences, including market manipulation, and had provided false information to Italian financial authorities.
In 2017, Italian police said Nattino had used Vatican accounts to carry out “a complex stock operation which resulted in criminal behaviour regarding market manipulation,” despite the 2012 directive to APSA to close such accounts.
The police action followed a 2011 investigation by Vatican authorities into Nattino. At that time, investigators identified Nattio as the owner of a portfolio of accounts at APSA which they suspected were used for money laundering and market manipulation. Authorities questioned why he had banking privileges at APSA at all.
The balance of Nattino’s accounts, some 2 million euros, was transferred to Switzerland shortly before the 2012 regulations were due to come into force. The Vatican investigation noted the “dubious origin and dubious final destination of the funds in the closing of” Nattino’s portfolio.
Another large stakeholder in Capaldo’s company Imvest is FEG International Assets SA, an anonymously incorporated company in Luxembourg formerly run by Gianluigi Torzi.
FEG and Torzi were named recently in a commercial fraud suit in London’s High Court. Also named as respondents in the suit were Giancarlo Andreella and his former company, Odikon Services PLC, of which Torzi was also a director. Odikon, formerly known as Beaumont Investment Services PLC, it is currently suspended by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority. Capaldo served as a director of Odikon Services until November 2018.
Imvest’s largest shareholder is Meti Capital, of which Capaldo also a part owner. Meti Capital’s largest owner (48% stake) is Yield Corporate Advisor Ltd., incorporated in Malta and owned by Andreella. Another major shareholder in Meti is Beaumont Investment/Odikon Services.
Imvest was raided by Italian authorities in May 2018 and several directors indicted on charges of preparation and submission of false budgets. Among those indicted was Alfio Marchini, a Roman real estate entrepreneur, and twice-failed candidate for Mayor of Rome for the 5 Star Party. That trial is pending.