Australian police probe alleged Vatican funds transfer amid Pell trial

Cardinal George Pell is seen during a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, October 12, 2020, in this still image taken from a video. Vatican Media/ Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian police are investigating the alleged transfer of Vatican funds to Australia amid the prosecution of former Vatican treasurer George Pell for child sex abuse and have referred the matter to an anti-corruption body.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) confirmed on Wednesday they have received information from Australia's financial crimes watchdog.

"The AFP is undertaking a review of the relevant information," the police said in emailed comments.

The AFP said it had also referred some aspects of the matter to the Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC), which investigates misconduct by state police.

Police in the state of Victoria in 2017 laid several charges against Pell involving historical child sexual offences, but only one case, involving two former choirboys, went to trial in 2018.

Italian media recently reported that Pell's Vatican nemesis, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, sent 700,000 euros (£638,806) to Australia to help Pell's "enemies" while he was facing sexual assault charges. Becciu's lawyer has denied the reports.

The head of the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) told a Senate committee on Tuesday that the agency had probed the allegations and given information to the AFP and Victoria police.

"I can confirm AUSTRAC has looked into the matter and we've provided information to the AFP and to Victoria Police," AUSTRAC Chief Executive Nicole Rose told a Senate Estimates committee hearing on Tuesday, when asked whether it had investigated the alleged Vatican funds transfer.

Victoria Police had no comment on the matter on Wednesday.

Pell was acquitted by Australia's High Court in April after serving 13 months in jail on charges he assaulted two choirboys. His lawyer said the Italian media reports on the alleged transfer of Vatican funds must be probed.

"If one is to give any credence to what has been alleged, then it is critical that all proper money tracing exercises be undertaken," Pell's lawyer, Robert Richter, told Reuters on Oct. 5.

Italian media have reported that the alleged wire transfer may have been used to "buy" the accusers in Pell's trial. Only one of those is alive.

Pell's accuser in the sexual assault case said through his lawyer that "he has no knowledge of any payments allegedly made by the Vatican to Australia".

His lawyer, Viv Waller, also said she had no knowledge of any payments nor any investigation into alleged payments.

"I have not been contacted by Victoria Police, the Australian Federal Police or AUSTRAC," Waller said in emailed comments.

When Pell was economy minister, in charge of overhauling the Vatican's finances, he ran into strong opposition from Becciu, who was number two in the Vatican's Secretariat of State.

The Pope fired Becciu on accusations of embezzlement and nepotism in September. Becciu has denied all wrongdoing.

After Becciu was sacked, Pell said: "The Holy Father was elected to clean up Vatican finances. He plays a long game and is to be thanked and congratulated on recent developments."

Pell returned to Rome on Sept. 30 for the first time since 2017. He held a meeting with the Pope on Oct. 12.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Michael Perry)

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