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At the service of the Church worldwide

· Interview with Ernst von Freyberg ·

Ernst von Freyberg was named President of the Ior, Istituto per le Opere di Religione, in February, after an extensive search of candidates for the position. Originally trained as a lawyer, the 54 year-old German comes to the Holy See after a 25-year career in finance. Mr. von Freyberg acknowledges that the Ior, originally begun in 1942, has a long way to go to restore its reputation as it strives to protect the patrimony of the Holy See, religious orders and other Catholic institutions. But he points out that it’s important to distinguish between facts and fiction when talking about the Ior.

A very simple question. What’s the mission of the Ior?

We serve the worldwide Church, by providing protection for the funds of Church institutions, the clergy and the employees of the Vatican. We support the Vatican in its budget by the surplus we generate if we do our job well.

You’ve taken on a tough job, and you’ve arrived at an extremely interesting time for the Church. Why do you think you were chosen? What do you bring to the table?

I have experience in running, hands-on, a small financial institution and I worked in parallel for most of my working life in a Catholic institution on the financial side as a volunteer. In my case this has been with the Order of Malta, as treasurer of the German Association. Some experience and loyalty to the church. Those are probably the two features that are needed for this position.

Why did you take the job?

Because I was called. It’s not a job that you apply for, or one that you stay awake at night hoping for, but when you are called, you are called. You take it and you say, this is a fantastic way to serve the Pope and the Church.

What are your goals, your current objectives?

When I came here, I spent the first weeks just getting to know the people, the world here, the institution of the Vatican and the Holy See better. I then made a plan, assembled a team and now I’m in the process of executing a plan in three important areas.

First, I want to ensure that our internal systems are those of a top-tier financial institution, with zero tolerance for illegal activity.

Second, we want better communications. We have an excellent reputation with our customers but our public image can only be described as very bad. This is linked partly to true events of the past, which should not have happened, partly to slander and partly to the fact that the Ior did not communicate in the past. To start with, it did not communicate properly with its core constituencies: the cardinals, the curia, the Catholic Church. This also includes our customers, and the world at large. It is of fundamental importance that we speak with them and be transparent and explain what we do.

This is why we commit to publishing our annual report. This is why we are creating a website. This is why we are meeting in a systematic way with members of the Church and the media.

Third, we want to create the basis for the future of Ior, and to do this in a systematic way. To look at the legal framework in which we move in the world and to look at our mission and our clients and what we can do better for them.

As to laying the grounds for the future, do you think that is a matter of tweaking or a restructuring of the system on a grander scale?

Much has been done in the past but we still need to improve procedures, enforcing them, and adjusting the structures. It is something that can be done by the end of the summer; it’s achievable. It’s a lot of work but I am confident that we will reach our goal.

You were speaking of your clients. Many of these are dioceses and religious orders. Are you still useful for them? Are they better off banking with you rather than someone else?

We better be useful to them. That is why we have 19,000 clients and almost 7 billion euros under management. There is an overwhelming opinion among our clients that they want us and prefer us over other financial institutions. We are, in the end, in competition. Our clients have choices. And 19,000 clients - congregations, dioceses, Catholic institutions, clergy - want to put their money in the Ior. This is where they feel safe and they feel well served. In addition, they know they put their money with someone who is not in the business for profit, but who has a mission to serve its clients in good times and in bad times. And whatever surplus is generated goes to the budget of the Holy See.

You were hired in the last days of Pope Benedict XVI’s Pontificate and now Pope Francis is beginning his Pontificate. Have you gotten to know them?

I met Pope Benedict on the 27th of February and I have the privilege of staying at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, so occasionally I am allowed to attend morning mass with the Pope and I met him after mass. I keep up on his homilies and find them very inspiring for our work. The first homily became a guiding principle for my work here. It was between Easter and Pentecost, and the readings were from the Acts of the Apostles. When Jesus appeared to the apostles, they didn’t know if he was a ghost or if he was real. Pope Francis said it’s very important to discern between ghosts and reality. That is very true for the situation we are in at the Ior. There are so many “ghosts” from the past that the biggest risk is that we chase ghosts and rumors and don’t focus on reality.

But the biggest direct impact of Pope Francis on the Ior is that he invited us to mass. After mass he shook the hand of everyone of our employees. This sign of affection renews our dedication and a desire to serve well but it is also a strong reminder of our responsibility as Institute related to the church.

Pope Francis has spoken about a “poor Church.” How do you reconcile “a poor Church” with a seven-billion dollar balance sheet?

You have to look beyond our balance sheet to the people we serve. There are lots of religious orders, and lots of dioceses who use the Ior. These are their funds, placed entirely at the service of the Church worldwide. They are used for hospitals and clinics, missions, schools, whatever their particular mission is. Religious orders and dioceses are doing a tremendous job serving the poor around the globe, and we try to help them in that mission.

The Aif, Autorità di Informazione Finanziaria, recently reported six cases of suspicious transactions in the Vatican in the course of 2012. What are you doing to respond to these kinds of cases?

I will talk first about 2013. In this year, so far, we have reported seven suspicious transactions, one more than for the whole of last year. To start, this is good news because it shows that the system supervised by Aif works. Of course, Ior can always be improved but there is more attention on suspicious transactions. The second important thing is that they are only suspicious transactions. It may well be that there is nothing behind them.

It’s important to realize, though, that this sort of situation is not specific to the Vatican. It’s a standard anti-money laundering system applied to any institution of this kind. What’s important for us is that there is a functioning and respected system in place.

Tell me more about recovering the reputation of the Ior.

The main point is to be absolutely sure that we have clean accounts and clean transactions. We are doing the groundwork, checking all accounts, and improving the system for reporting anything suspicious.

What we need to explain a lot more clearly is how we protect the funds of our clients, how we conduct payment services, and that we do this not for economic gain but only in the interest of serving the Church. Whatever we earn goes to serve the mission of the Church. It will take a long time for that message to come through, and we have no illusions about. We will take it one day at a time, but in two or three years the perception of the Ior will change.

There has been talk, especially since the election of Pope Francis, that the Holy See could do without the Ior. What are your thoughts on that?

Let’s look at that first of all from the perspective of the clients. They don’t want the Ior to close; they don’t want to go somewhere else. They want and they need the service we provide here. That’s very simple.

From the Holy See’s perspective, we must provide our services in a way in which we don’t obscure the message of the church. This is the most important challenge for us, that we take any shadow away and let the Gospel shine. The Ior provides a tremendous service for the Catholic Church and for everything it does around the world, and people should be aware of that.

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