Sunday 4 December 2016

Irish priest probes mystery of the nuns and $9m cash

Limerick cleric investigates whether nuns helped Argentinian ex-minister with bags full of money

Robin Schiller

Published 26/07/2016 | 00:00

Jose Lopez (C) is taken into custody in a bulletproof vest and helmet. Photo: Getty
Jose Lopez (C) is taken into custody in a bulletproof vest and helmet. Photo: Getty

An Irish priest has become involved in investigating a multi-million-dollar corruption scandal in Argentina after being tasked to find out if a group of nuns were involved in abetting a former government minister.

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The case came to light last month after the former minister for Public Works of the Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner-led government was arrested.

Jose Lopez during his time as a government minister. AFP/Getty Images
Jose Lopez during his time as a government minister. AFP/Getty Images

Jose Lopez had been seen throwing a number of bags into the Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima convent, located around 50km from Buenos Aires, and a concerned neighbour alerted authorities in the early hours of June 14 this year.

It emerged that the bags contained almost $9m (€8m)in cash and jewellery, while a .22 calibre rifle was also found in the back of Mr Lopez's car.

A major investigation is now underway to determine how the ex-minister was in possession of so much money, with an Irish priest examining whether a group of nuns - one aged 94-years-old - were involved in the scandal.

Fr Tom O'Donnell (64), who is originally from Templeglantine, Co Limerick, and has been working in Argentina since 1978, has said that the investigation would attempt to establish whether the nuns were aware of what was happening or if they were "being used" by Mr Lopez.

Fr Tom O’Donnell. Photo: Irish Catholic.
Fr Tom O’Donnell. Photo: Irish Catholic.

"This gentleman Mr Lopez was the minister for Public Works, he had the cheque book and he was friendly with the founder of the congregation where this man threw the money over the wall," said Fr O'Donnell. "We are now aware that the government at the time helped the bishop and his congregation to build part of the convent so there was a relationship between the minister, his secretary and the founder of the congregation.

"His wife had phoned the convent at 8pm roughly (on June 13) saying that Jose Lopez would be coming later with bags. Now, according to the nuns, they weren't sure if they were food items or what they were but he didn't turn up until late in the morning."

A neighbour who saw Mr Lopez acting suspiciously near the grounds of the convent alerted police officers, fearing that the former politician was a burglar targeting the nuns.

Bribe

Former President of Argentina Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. REUTERS
Former President of Argentina Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. REUTERS

When local police officers arrived at the scene at 4am, Mr Lopez identified himself as a priest before then allegedly trying to bribe the officers with $1m.

He was arrested, with attention then turning to whether the nuns living in the convent were attempting to assist Mr Lopez in taking the money.

"It's a canonical investigation. Now, did they commit a crime, these old nuns? These nuns, of course, have their statutes and their constitutions. It's only a new congregation but they still have fundamental law, constitutions and statutes," Fr O'Donnell told RTÉ Radio 1.

"Our investigation is to find out if they comply with these promises of obedience, poverty . . . we have just started now, our local archbishop has formed the commission and we're just starting this coming week," he said.

Mr Lopez was arrested for possession of a firearm on the morning of June 14 after police discovered a .22 rifle in his car.

He has since appeared before court in a bullet-proof vest and helmet, but last month refused to testify in front of a federal judge.

The corruption scandal took another bizarre twist late last month when former Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner publicly denied giving money to her former minister.

"Lopez was in power, someone gave it (the money) to him. And it wasn't me," Ms Kirchner wrote on her Facebook page in the days after the convent arrest.

Fr O'Donnell also told how the news had shocked the Argentinian people, with the events being covered around the clock by local and national media outlets.

"People, of course, are shocked and we don't really know what happened.

"The investigation is to find out what really happened. Were the nuns being used or were they aware of what was happening that morning.

"We don't know what happened and what the next steps will be," he said.

Irish Independent

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