The Vatican Bank is well along the path to transparency, says René Brülhart. His opinion matters because he’s president of the Vatican Financial Information Authority (AIF), which oversees the bank’s progress towards international standards.

Brülhart has been called “the James Bond of international finance”, not only because of his swarthy good looks and elegance but also because of his role in locating the assets that Saddam Hussein had squirreled away in Europe.

He was born in the German-speaking Swiss city of Fribourg in 1972. After postgraduate law studies in the Netherlands, he directed the financial intelligence unit of Liechtenstein, a mini-state previously notorious for money laundering. Brülhart improved the principality’s reputation, raising it to the first ranks of financial transparency, according to the European ratings agency Moneyval. He became vice-president of the Egmont Group of international financial intelligence units.

In 2012 he was appointed head of the AIF, shortly after Benedict XVI ended the Vatican’s financial exceptionalism by agreeing to conform to Council of Europe transparency standards. Pope Francis reinforced the powers of the AIF, whose office is in the San Carlo building close to the Santa Marta hostel where the Pope lives. Unlike some past Vatican finance figures, Brülhart is not linked to groups like Opus Dei or the Knights of Malta.

Pope Francis considered closing the Vatican Bank, formally known as the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), but decided it was needed, provided it was reformed. The AIF is responsible for reshaping the IOR, which Brülhart describes as “a financial system sui generis”.

How has he gone about his task? “Step by step,” he says in his soft, fluent, slightly accented English when I meet him in Rome. “It has been a matter of understanding how the Vatican functions, how its financial institutions have developed and then building a tailor-made system which respects the Vatican outlook and traditions but also international standards.

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