Holocaust survivors from the former Yugoslavia accused the Vatican of helping Nazi allies launder their stolen valuables and have asked the European Commission to investigate their claims.
“We are requesting the commission open an inquiry into allegations of money laundering of Holocaust victim assets by financial organs associated with or which are agencies of the Vatican City State,” Jonathan Levy, a Washington-based attorney for the survivors and their heirs, wrote in a letter dated Oct. 20 to Olli Rehn, the European Union’s economic and monetary affairs commissioner. Levy provided the letter to Bloomberg.
The request follows a decade-long lawsuit in U.S. courts on behalf of Holocaust survivors and their heirs from the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine. That case, basing its claims on a U.S. State Department report on the fate of Nazi plunder, alleged that the Vatican Bank laundered assets stolen from thousands of Jews, gypsies and Serbs killed or captured by the Ustasha, the Nazi-backed regime of wartime Croatia. The Vatican repeatedly denied the charges and the findings of the 1998 U.S. report.
Amadeu Altafaj, Rehn’s spokesman, said in Brussels today that the commission had received Levy’s letter and contacted Vatican authorities about it. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi declined to comment on Levy’s request to the commission.
The U.S. case, which sought as much as $2 billion in restitution, was dismissed last December by a U.S. appeals court in San Francisco on grounds that the Vatican Bank enjoyed immunity under the 1976 Foreign Service Immunities Act, which may prevent foreign governments from facing lawsuits in the U.S.
The commission should have the authority to probe the Institute for Religious Works, or IOR, as the Vatican Bank is called, according to Levy’s letter. It cites a monetary accord signed on Dec. 17 of last year. Under the agreement the Vatican, which uses the euro and issues euro coins, pledged to implement EU laws against money laundering, counterfeiting and fraud.
Rome prosecutors have also sought to show that the Vatican bank is covered under European law. Last month they seized 23 million euros ($32 million) from an Italian account registered to the IOR as they opened a probe into alleged violations of money-laundering laws by the Vatican Bank.
“We looked at all the places where the Vatican may have surrendered sovereignty,” Levy said in a telephone interview. “The only place we could find was with the euro, where they placed themselves under the jurisdiction of either the European Central Bank or the European Commission.”
Levy initially contacted the legal office of the Frankfurt- based ECB and was told to take the claim to the commission, he said. An ECB spokeswoman confirmed that after being contacted by Levy, the central bank advised him to go directly to the EU’s executive arm.
The U.S. lawsuit was first filed in 1999, one year after an official Swiss commission concluded that Switzerland received three times more gold taken from Nazi victims than previously estimated by the U.S. government. The same year, UBS AG and Credit Suisse AG, the biggest Swiss banks, agreed to pay $1.25 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
In his letter, Levy said “gold and other valuables” stolen in the “genocidal” murder of 500,000 Serbs, Jews and gypsies “were deposited at the Vatican in 1946,” according to “contemporaneous documents authored by Allied investigators” and “the sworn testimony of former U.S. Special Agent William Gowen.” He interviewed and investigated the Ustasha involved in transferring the loot while stationed in Rome after the war.
Under its agreement with the commission, Vatican City State, a sovereign nation outside the EU, may issue a maximum of 2.3 million euros in coins in 2010 through the Italian mint, not including a further variable amount. The Vatican also pledged to implement EU legislation against money laundering by year-end.
Rehn said the Vatican has submitted its first draft laws “on the prevention of money laundering and the fight against fraud and counterfeiting” and the commission is analyzing them, according to his reply to a question from a member of the European Parliament, posted on its website on Sept. 9.
Lombardi on Oct. 23 declined to say whether the Vatican intends to meet the Dec. 31 deadline for implementing the EU legislation.