God’s Godfather

Douglas Johnson

  • God’s Banker: An Account of the Life and Death of Roberto Calvi by Rupert Cornwell
    Gollancz, 260 pp, £8.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 575 03351 7
  • A Man of Honour: The Autobiography of a Godfather by Joseph Bonnano and Sergio Lalli
    Deutsch, 416 pp, £9.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 233 97609 4
  • The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez
    Deutsch, 186 pp, £8.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 233 97521 7

On the evening of 15 June 1982 Roberto Calvi landed in a private plane at Gatwick airport and using a false passport proceeded to London. At the time he was one of the most sought-after men in Europe, and at the centre of a considerable financial scandal. The Ambrosiano Bank, of which he was director, was in the process of collapsing and there was talk of gigantic sums of money, thousands of millions of dollars’ worth, having vanished into thin air. And this was not all. Scandals surrounding banks are common enough in Italy, but this promised to be something big even by Italian standards. Not only were many famous institutions and individuals implicated: it was certain that the Vatican was involved. Via the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, and through a host of surrogate companies and banks, Calvi had lent large sums to the Papacy. He was no ordinary banker. He was God’s banker.

From his hastily hired flat, at Chelsea Cloisters in Sloane Street, Calvi telephoned frequently to his family. On the morning of Thursday 17 June he spoke three times to his daughter in Zurich, and urged her to go to the United States to join her mother and brother. ‘Something really important is happening,’ he told her.‘Today and tomorrow all hell is going to break loose.’ But the next day he was found dead, his pockets stuffed with bank-notes and weighed down with stones, hanging from Blackfriars Bridge. Financial scandal seemed to have been completed by murder, and the stage set for sensational happenings.

But as Rupert Cornwell, the Rome correspondent of the Financial Times, has shown in a fine example of investigative journalism, the sensations rapidly became muted. Owing to a newspaper strike, it was some time before the implications of Calvi’s strange death could be discussed at any length. The Vatican, always economical of information and skilful in manoeuvre, was able to suggest that its only error had been a misplaced confidence in Calvi. Something like half of the missing money was made good by the Bank of Italy. It was pointed out that the failure of a private Italian bank was only a small manifestation of a crisis which was affecting the world banking system as a whole. A host of minor scandals and irrelevant rumours obscured rather than clarified the Calvi affair and it began to look as if the sensation-mongers were losing interest and the investigators were making little progress. Italian society was not shaken to its foundations and, as Cornwell puts it, the ways of Italy did not change. The British judicial system played its part in taking some of the sting out of the affair when an inquest, held some five weeks after the discovery of Calvi’s body, decided that the cause of death was suicide by strangulation.

But two events have taken place which suggest that the story is by no means over. The one, which forms a postscript to Cornwell’s book, was a second inquest at the City of London Coroner’s Court. On 27 June 1983 the original verdict of suicide was replaced by an open verdict. The possibility that Calvi might have been murdered was therefore admitted officially, even if reluctantly. The second event, which is much more important, came too late to be included in Cornwell’s book. It concerns the godfatherly Lucio Gelli, the Venerable Master of a Freemasons’ lodge known as P-2 (Propaganda-Due, to distinguish it from a more conventional Propaganda lodge based in Turin). In 1981 the membership list of P-2 had been discovered and published, and it was realised that this organisation had penetrated the whole of the state system. Its 962 names made up the greater part of the Italian establishment; amongst its members were the military and secret service hierarchies, the leaders of the judiciary, the police, the civil service, as well as prominent politicians and industrialists. There was a direct link between P-2 and Calvi, and it was clear that the affairs of the Ambrosiano Bank were intimately involved with this giant organisation which appeared to be the effective governing force of the country.

At the time Gelli had taken refuge in South America, where he had many connections. But in September 1982 he appeared disguised at the counter of a Swiss bank and endeavoured to withdraw some 55 million dollars from an account. His disguise was penetrated and for this attempted fraud he was arrested and placed in the ultra-modern prison of Champ Dollon. The Italian judicial authorities asked that he be extradited and returned to Italy, where he was due to face several charges, and to be interrogated by the parliamentary commission which was inquiring into P-2. This application for extradition was down to be heard on 19 August 1983.

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