Vatican authorities are reeling after the surprise announcement that the head of its financial watchdog agency would not be continuing for another term.

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A Holy See Press Office communiqué confirmed Monday that Swiss lawyer and former head of Liechtenstein’s financial intelligence unit René Brülhart had finished his service as President of the Vatican Financial Information Authority (AIF).

The news appeared to catch the Press Office off-guard.

Although the three-sentence statement mentioned that Pope Francis had appointed as successor to Brülhart “a figure of high professional profile and accredited competence at international level”, it did not mention the name of the new AIF head.

The Press Office said that the appointment of Brülhart’s successor will be made public and become effective on the Pope’s return from his trip this week to Thailand and Japan, on November 26.

The Office was later forced to clarify in another statement that the delay was due to the new agency head’s “previous institutional commitments” and because of certain “internal procedures” yet to be completed by the Vatican.

The Press Office did say, however, that the Pope thanked Brülhart for his service and that the announcement of the new AIF head “will ensure the continuity of the AIF’s institutional action at this time of particular commitments at internal and international levels”.

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Speaking to the National Catholic Reporter, Brülhart said he had decided to resign at the end of his five-year term as AIF president, which comes up today, November 19.

But the departure of the first layman to head up the AIF comes at a difficult time for the agency, which has been under intense scrutiny since Vatican police raids on the AIF and the Secretariat of State October 1 in connection with a shady London real estate deal.

The AIF works with other financial intelligence agencies around the world in the fight against financial crimes such as money laundering and tax evasion.

Brülhart had done much to advance the AIF’s reputation in that sense since coming to the agency in 2012, but that hard-won trust took a hit when Vatican prosecutors alleged the AIF’s role in the Secretariat of State’s 150-million-euro purchase of a luxury Chelsea building was “not clear”.

Tens of millions of euros allegedly ended up in the pockets of the middlemen who brokered that purchase.

Along with four other Vatican workers, Brülhart’s subordinate, AIF director Tommaso Di Ruzza, was suspended immediately following the raids and barred from entering Vatican territory.

Vatican police chief Domenico Giani later resigned October 14 over the leak of the order excluding Di Ruzza and three of the other suspended staffers from Vatican grounds.

But the AIF shot back in a statement October 23, with its directors defending Di Ruzza and insisting that neither he nor any other AIF employee had engaged in any wrongdoing in the Chelsea deal.

Why it matters

Brülhart’s departure also comes almost a month after Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi claimed in a new book that Vatican debt “has reached worrisome levels, at risk of leading to default”.

President of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) Bishop Nunzio Galantino came out and denied Nuzzi’s allegation, though he did admit the need for a Vatican “spending review”.

Vatican cardinal Peter Turkson was also forced to admit that the Holy See is working on a document to clean up its investments and ensure they are in line with ethical principles.

More urgent, however, for Vatican officials are the upcoming consultations and on-site evaluation by the Moneyval agency, the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism.

Those reviews are scheduled for the spring, but with Brülhart’s departure and Di Ruzza’s ongoing suspension, the AIF is currently rudderless going into the process.

That’s despite the Pope’s appointment last week of Spanish Jesuit Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves as the new Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, which is expected to bring some calm to the turbulent world of Vatican finances.

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