It is thought the agency incorrectly apportioned to the Vatican hundreds of millions of dollars in transfers between Italy and Australia, leading to the massively inflated figure.
AUSTRAC provided the $2.3 billion figure to Parliament in December following a question from Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. The senator was probing claims by Italian newspapers of suspicious transfers between the Vatican and Australia and whether any funds had been used to influence the 2018 trial and conviction of Pell on child sex abuse charges.
The High Court unanimously overturned Pell’s conviction last year.
In its original answer to Fierravanti-Wells, AUSTRAC reported $2.3 billion had been sent to Australia between 2014 and 2020 across nearly 48,000 different transactions.
It said $71.6 million was sent in 2014, $137.1 million in 2015 and $295 million in 2016. The transfer value jumped in 2017, 2018 and 2019 to an annual average of $500 million.
In its updated figures, AUSTRAC said the most transferred to Australia by the Vatican in a single year was actually $2.6 million, in 2017. As one example of the size of its error, AUSTRAC originally said transfers totalled $492 million in 2019 when the actual figure was just $800,000.
The Australian newspaper first raised doubts about the veracity of the $2.3 billion claim when Vatican figures and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference expressed incredulity about the extraordinary amount.
An unnamed Vatican figure also told Reuters the $2.3 billion figure was “like science fiction”.
“It’s not our money because we don’t have that kind of money,” he said. “I am absolutely stunned.”
Rose said AUSTRAC had worked with the Vatican’s Financial Intelligence Unit to correct the figures.
“AUSTRAC has subsequently undertaken a detailed review of the data and put immediate additional quality assurance processes in place,” she said.
“AUSTRAC is also considering what further processes and governance changes should be implemented into the future.”
The agency also miscalculated how much money had been sent from Australia to the Vatican. It originally told the Senate the figure was $117.4 million over seven years when it was actually $26.6 million.
Pell returned to the Vatican in September just as its financial affairs came under renewed scrutiny following the Pope’s decision to sack Cardinal Angelo Becciu over allegations of suspicious property transactions. Becciu has denied any wrongdoing.
Becciu and Pell clashed during the Australian cardinal’s tenure as Vatican treasurer between 2014 and 2017.
Italian newspapers La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera last October claimed Becciu was suspected of arranging for €700,000 ($1.1 million) to be transferred to people in Australia to support Pell’s prosecution in Victoria.
AUSTRAC examined the reports and provided “information” to the Australian Federal Police and Victoria Police in October.
However there is no evidence that any money influenced Pell’s trial and Victoria Police said there were no grounds to investigate in the absence of any other evidence or intelligence.
The AFP is still looking at some of the transactions.
Comment was sought from AUSTRAC and Fierravanti-Wells.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.