VATICAN CITY (AP) -- The Vatican's efforts to clean up its scandal-tainted financial offices has earned it membership in an international network facilitating information exchange in the fight against organized crime, the Holy See said Wednesday.
Egmont Group admitted the Vatican's financial watchdog agency, known as the AIF, at a meeting in South Africa, the Vatican press office said in a statement.
Membership in the group is a sorely needed morale boast for the Vatican, which has been stung by scandal after scandal. The move comes as the Vatican is reeling under a spate of problems, including the jailing of a Vatican accountant in Rome while prosecutors probe an alleged plot to smuggle 20 million euros ($26 million) in cash in a private plane from Switzerland to Italy. The prosecutors are reportedly focusing on two managers who resigned earlier this week from the Vatican bank amid a criminal probe of the bank's operations.
Pope Francis has made ridding the Vatican's bureaucracy and other power structures of corruption a top priority of his papacy — he has already formed commission to get to the bottom of the problems that have plagued the Vatican bank for decades.
Egmont Group is an informal grouping, begun in 1995, of financial intelligence units, or FIUs, with more than 130 members.
Membership "grants access to a global network of FIUS and facilitates the exchange of information in the fight against financial crime," the Vatican statement said. For the Holy See, membership "marks a further step in its contribution to this global effort," it said.
Admission to Egmont Group "represents a recognition of the Holy See/Vatican City State's systematic efforts in tracking and fighting money laundering and financing of terrorism," the statement quoted AIF's director, Rene Bruelhart, as saying. Bruelhart was formerly head of Egmont before his appointment to the Vatican post.
Corruption allegations in the Vatican's notoriously secretive apparatus were believed to have particularly dismayed Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned in February after saying he no longer had the mental or physical strength to firmly lead the church.
AIF's creation reflected Vatican efforts to crack down on financial practices that have attracted the attention of Italian prosecutors, who fear that the Vatican's bank could be exploited by criminals seeking safe and private havens to launder illicit revenues.
In 2010, Italian authorities seized 23 million euros (then worth $31 million) as part of a money-laundering probe after suspicions about a transaction involving a Vatican Bank account at an Italian bank. Italian authorities later ordered the money released after they determined in 2011 that the Vatican had devised suitable measures to prevent money laundering.
One of the most embarrassing developments for the Holy See was the arrest on June 28 of an Italian monsignor who, until his suspension a few weeks ago, worked as a well-connected Vatican accountant.
Earlier on Wednesday, an Italian shipping family denied any role in the alleged money-smuggling plot involving Monsignor Nunzio Scarano. Through a family lawyer, the d'Amico family described Scarano as their "spiritual" adviser. The lawyer, Vincenzo Cupri, spoke to reporters as he left offices of Rome prosecutors who are investigating the alleged scheme to spirit 20 million euros ($26 million) from Switzerland into Italy. The plot was never put into action.
Prosecutors have said they suspect the money belongs to the d'Amico family and was deposited in Switzerland to avoid Italian taxes.
Cupri told the AP that Scarano was a longtime family friend and a "spiritual father." He said the d'Amico family denies tax evasion accusations.
Scarano denies wrongdoing.