VATICAN CITY – Day one of the Vatican’s latest blockbuster criminal trial ended with more of a whimper than a bang on Thursday, as, following some initial legal skirmishing over new testimony, the case’s three-judge panel decided to put things on hold until Sept. 19.
Early on, the thinking in Rome was that the Vatican decided to stage the trial while Pope Francis was out of town in Colombia Sept. 6-11, hoping that it could be wrapped up before the pontiff returned, but that’s obviously no longer in the cards.
Dates were set for the court to be in session again on Sept. 19, 20 and 21, first to hear from the defendants themselves, and then from roughly 7 projected witnesses, four called by prosecutors and three by the two defense teams.
The interval is designed to allow time for authentic copies of the new testimony and relevant documents to reach all the parties. No precise time when that would happen was stated, though a defense attorney insisted it couldn’t be the evening of Sept. 18, just before the trial resumes.
The case pivots on roughly $500,000 from funds belonging to a foundation overseeing Rome’s papally-sponsored Bambino Gesù pediatric hospital, which was used to pay for the renovation of the private Vatican apartment of Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the former Secretary of State under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and a longtime patron of the hospital.
The expenses themselves aren’t really in dispute. The main question is whether the two defendants – Italian layman and businessman Giuseppe Profiti, who at the time was president of the hospital’s foundation; and Massimo Spina, the foundation’s former treasurer – were authorized to disburse those funds for that purpose.
Both defendants were present in the courtroom Thursday, although both are Italian citizens and, theoretically, could invoke that point to assert they’re outside the Vatican’s jurisdiction.
The indictment of the two men, read aloud during the roughly 90-minute hearing on Thursday, asserts those expenses were “completely extraneous” to the ends of the foundation as outlined in its Vatican-approved statutes.
Since one of the main ends of that foundation is to raise money for the hospital, however, and because the stated purpose of the renovations was to host fundraising events for the hospital in Bertone’s apartment, Profiti has insisted he did nothing wrong and would do it again.
As explained by Presiding Judge Paolo Papanti-Peletier at the beginning of Thursday’s suspended hearing, new testimony had been deposited with the court the previous morning from Dr. Mariella Enoc, who’s the hospital’s current president. It was described as a memorandum from Enoc, but there was no clear sense of what it contains.
Papanti-Peletier then asked the lawyers what they wanted to do about the new evidence. Both the prosecution and two defense teams requested time to study it before proceeding.
Also before the court was a request from a defense attorney that another two witnesses in the case – one who heads the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority, but cited “exigencies of intelligence” for not appearing, and Enoc herself, be compelled to come to court.
Otherwise their input, the lawyer insisted, is akin to “hot air.”
After roughly a half-hour, the three judges excused themselves to confer, returning about 40 minutes later.
Papanti-Peletier announced the court had accepted the request for a delay, and that copies of the memorandum be made available along with a handful of other documents Profiti’s defense team had requested.
The rest of the hearing was occupied with coordinating the calendars of the various lawyers to identify a date to meet again, with the decision eventually falling on Sept. 19 in the morning.
At the end, defense attorney Alfredo Ottaviani, representing Spina, renewed his requests about Tommasso Di Ruzza, the director of the Financial Information Authority, and Enoc. Papanti-Peletier said the court hadn’t yet reached a decision, and with that, the curtain came down.
From the beginning the “absent man” in the case has been Bertone, who was not investigated by police or prosecutors and has not been charged with any crime. He’s also not presently expected to appear as a witness in the case.
Given that the contested expenses went to Bertone’s own apartment, however, and that he’s longtime friends with both Profiti and Gianantonio Bandera, the businessman whose now-bankrupt construction company was supposed to carry out the work, it’s been difficult for some observers to believe he was in the dark, and how Profiti and Spina can be charged with a financial crime but Bertone left untouched.
There was only one brief reference to Bertone during the morning’s proceedings. It came when a lawyer for Profiti asked for documents related to an already-known letter by Bertone in November 2013 accepting Bandera’s proposed contract and cost estimates and passing them along to the Bambino Gesù foundation.
Those requests were among those approved Thursday by the court.
In the end, therefore, this was hardly high courtroom drama.
The hearing passed almost as much time in recess as it did meeting, and there were no verbal sparring matches, tearful confessions from the stand, or surprise witnesses. Instead, it was mostly a procedural affair with little of substance decided.
The only bit of slight tension came when Ottaviani brought up Di Ruzza at the end, and prosecutor Gian Pietro Milano said that question would be addressed in due time.
At the end of the day, perhaps the only “winner” to emerge from day one was the court itself, creating at least the appearance of not wanting to steamroll the outcome and to provide time for the defense teams to prepare.
However, if the real question hanging over the trial is how the results can be presented as a breakthrough in the press for financial accountability and transparency in the Vatican, without even considering Bertone’s role in the case, there didn’t seem to be a better sense of what the answer might be at the end of the hearing than when it began.