Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

"You can't run the Church on Hail Marys" --- Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, (1922-2006) former head of the Vatican Bank  

Cicero, IL-born Paul Marcinkus, a central figure in Gerald Posner's "God's Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican" (Simon & Schuster, 752 pages, photographic inserts, notes, bibliography, index, $32.00) practiced what he preached at one of the world's most opaque financial institution, the  Istituto per le Opere di Religione (IOR), also known as the Vatican Bank, from 1971 to 1989.

BOOK REVIEW: 'God's Bankers': Exhaustive Look at Money and Power in Vatican City

The 6-foot 3 inch Lithuanian American also doubled as a bodyguard/interpreter for several popes. He certainly stood out among the mostly diminutive denizens of  one of the world's smallest countries. Despite having no financial experience he managed to hang on to his job, writes Posner, who spent nine years researching and writing this book. The exhaustive research -- including several details revealed for the first time -- shows, as does the gripping narrative that is stranger than fiction.

Speaking of fiction, Posner describes how some of the events, including the murder of Italian banker Roberto Calvi in London in 1982, were dramatized in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather. Part III" in 1990. (Page 363).

Just about every account I've read about the Vatican Bank and the numerous financial scandals in Italy leads off with the death of Robert Calvi in 1982 at Blackfriars Bridge in London -- and Posner's book is no exception.

Calvi (April 13, 1920 – June 17, 1982) was an Italian banker, often  dubbed "God's Banker" by the press because of his close association with the Holy See.  Calvi was Chairman of Banco Ambrosiano in Milan -- named after the city's patron saint, Ambrose -- which collapsed in one of modern Italy's biggest political and financial scandals. His death in London in June 1982 is a source of enduring controversy and was ruled a murder after two coroner's inquests and an independent investigation. In Rome, in June 2007, five people were acquitted of the murder.

Claims have been made that factors in Calvi's death were the Vatican Bank, Banco Ambrosiano's main shareholder; the Mafia, which may have used Banco Ambrosiano for money laundering; and the Propaganda Due or P2 clandestine Masonic Lodge.

Speaking of talking out of both sides of your mouth, the Roman Catholic Church does that in spades regarding Freemasonry. Becoming a mason would normally result in excommunication for any Catholic, especially in Italy. On the other hand, P2 was a "shadow government" that included many prominent Italians, The lodge had among its members prominent journalists, members of parliament, industrialists, and military leaders—including Silvio Berlusconi, who later became Prime Minister of Italy; the Savoy pretender to the Italian throne Victor Emmanuel; and the heads of all three Italian intelligence services (at the time SISDE, SISMI and CESIS).

"God's Bankers" traces the political intrigue and inner workings of the Catholic Church, especially about the church’s accumulation of wealth and its byzantine entanglements with financial markets across the world. At one point, the bank was in the top 10 of money laundering institutions.

Posner presents a shocking account of money and power in perhaps the most influential organization in the history of the world.

Don't be intimidated by the size of this book: it contains enough material for a dozen thriller movies. Poisoned business titans;  faked kidnappings; murdered prosecutors; mysterious deaths of private investigators, and questionable suicides; a carnival of characters from Popes and cardinals, financiers and mobsters, kings and prime ministers; and a set of moral and political circumstances that clarify not only the church’s aims and ambitions, but reflect the larger dilemmas of the world’s more recent history. Not the least among the dilemmas facing the Church is the role of the Vatican in financing Nazis moving to South America and the Middle East through the so-called "ratlines."

The scandal over priests molesting children, almost exclusively boys: It's in here, Chapter 31, pages 395 ff. Clueless as to public relations and crisis management, the Church blamed the sexual abuse story on the media, moving priests from diocese to diocese like pieces on a chessboard. Posner tells the story of Jason Berry, writing in a small circulation weekly in Louisiana -- after his story was turned down by larger publications like Rolling Stone -- exposing molestation by priests in Cajun Louisiana. Berry's story, later published in book form, was too explosive to stay hidden.

At the end of the book Posner examines the reforms to the bank, wondering if Pope Francis can succeed where all his predecessors failed: to overcome the resistance to change in the Vatican’s Machiavellian inner court and to rein in the excesses of its seemingly uncontrollable financial quagmire. Part thriller, part financial tell-all, this book shows with extraordinary precision how the Vatican has evolved from a foundation of faith to a corporation of extreme wealth and power.

Gold stolen by the Nazis, including from the teeth of Holocaust victims: It's discussed by Posner. Much of the gold, including wedding rings from Gypsies -- Roma -- murdered in the death camps,  ended up in the Vatican Bank and at a famous shrine in Portugal.

For those who say Posner is an anti-Catholic writer, he retorts that his mother was Roman Catholic and he was educated by Jesuits.

Regardless of your views about the Catholic Church and the abuses of religion in general, "God's Bankers" should be read by everyone who wants to understand another version of Lord Acton's saying about the corruption of power. "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Gerald Posner
Gerald Posner
Photo by Dale Stine

About the author

Gerald Posner was born in 1954 in San Francisco, the only child of Jerry and Gloria Posner, native San Franciscans. His father was a labor union official. His father was Jewish and his mother was Roman Catholic. Posner was educated at St. Ignatius College Preparatory (1972), the University of California, Berkeley, (B.A.), (1975), and University of California, Hastings College of the Law (J.D.), (1978). He worked for law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore until 1980.  Of counsel to the law firm he founded, Posner and Ferrara, he is now a full time journalist and author.
He is the Chief Investigative Reporter for the Daily Beast (www.thedailybeast/author/gerald-posner). In the past, he was a freelance writer on investigative issues for several news magazines, and a regular contributor to NBC, the History Channel, CNN, FOX News, CBS, and MSNBC. A member of the National Advisory Board of the National Writers Union, Posner is also a member of the Authors Guild, PEN, The Committee to Protect Journalists, and Phi Beta Kappa. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, author, Trisha Posner, who works on all his projects (