Pope Francis has set up a commission to review the secretive and scandal-dogged Vatican bank in a bid to personally oversee a "greater harmonisation" between its activities and the wider Roman Catholic church.

A panel of five people – including two cardinals and Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor who used to be US ambassador to the Holy See – was announced by the Vatican on Wednesday as Francis showed signs of wanting to extend his belief in ethical financial reform to his own backyard.

Known officially as the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), the bank is attempting to shed its image as a mysterious and opaque organisation which has regularly harmed the Vatican's image, with a new German president who says his mission is to introduce greater transparency.

But questions remain over its ability to clean up its record, especially in the wake of embarrassing documents leaked during the so-called Vatileaks scandal, which painted a picture of dysfunctional internal machinations.

Last year, soon after its former president had been ousted in an apparent boardroom coup, a landmark report by Moneyval, a monitoring committee of the Council of Europe, found that although the institution had made progress in some areas, it had a lot of work to do before it could be included on the EU's anti-money laundering "white list".

The bank is due to update Moneyval on its progress by the end of the year. In interviews last month, Ernst von Freyberg, the German financier who has taken over the reins at the institution, said the Vatican had detected seven possible incidents of money laundering so far this year.

As he outlined one of the Argentinian pontiff's most concrete moves to date, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the new commission – established through a personal decree known as a chirografo – would report directly to Francis.

In a statement, the Vatican's secretariat of state said the idea for the commission had emerged from "the desire of the Holy Father to better understand the judicial position and activities of the Institute in order to allow for greater harmonisation with the mission of the universal church … in a wider context of reform".

Ever since Francis succeeded Benedict XVI in March and announced he wanted a "poor church, for the poor", there has been speculation that he might seek to restructure – or even close – the 71-year-old IOR, which has around 19,000 accounts, mostly belonging to priests, nuns, charities and Vatican employees.

The commission is not the first step Francis has taken to better oversee its operation – he appointed a trusted ally to an important role inside the IOR earlier this month.

The commission, whose members will have powers to obtain documents and data they deem necessary to establish the state of affairs at the bank, is headed by Raffaele Farina, an Italian cardinal.

Also on the panel are Jean-Louis Tauran, the French cardinal who announced Francis's election as pontiff to the world in March; Glendon, an American academic who served from 2008-2009 as US ambassador to the Holy See; a Spanish bishop and an American monsignor.

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