ROME – Last Friday, the latest twist in the Vatican’s version of the “Great Fire of London,” in their case referring to a $225 million land deal in London that went spectacularly wrong and ended in scandal, came with the arrest of a shadowy lay Italian financier named Gianluigi Torzi.
For those who haven’t followed the affair, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State originally laid out roughly $225 million to buy part of a former Harrod’s warehouse in the posh London neighborhood of Chelsea, which, at the time, was slated for conversion into luxury apartments. What especially outraged some observers is that the Secretariat of State financed the deal in part using funds from the annual Peter’s Pence collection, which is marketed to ordinary Catholics around the world as a way to support papal charities.
When the Secretariat of State’s relationship soured with the original Italian moneyman who brokered the deal, Raffaele Mincione, Torzi apparently was brought in to try to put things right, but now he too is accused, among other offenses, of attempted extortion by claiming exorbitant fees.
At the moment, virtually everyone connected with the scandal is offering their version of events to various Italian media outlets.
Mincione recently spoke with the agency Adnkronos, claiming, among other things, that the property he helped the Vatican buy could have been resold recently for a tidy profit of $30 million, suggesting he did his duty. Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, an official of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State who was also identified as a suspect in the London affair, spoke with the newspaper Il Giornale, insisting that he had no power to move any money and that he played merely a small part in an operation approved by people above his pay grade.
Perlasca also claimed that when Torzi requested a fee of more than $20 million, he wanted to denounce the financier for fraud, but higher-ups in the Secretariat of State preferred to negotiate. (Torzi reportedly was eventually paid roughly $15 million.)
Although the Vatican has not announced a date for the trials of accused parties, it could come almost anytime. Hearings of the Vatican tribunal were suspended March 19 due to the coronavirus lockdown, but officials say that suspension has expired, so theoretically preliminary hearings against Torzi and others could begin whenever prosecutors believe they’re ready to move forward.
Moreover, officials say the prosecution of Torzi will be different from the last time the Vatican tried to charge Italian laymen who were neither Vatican employees nor citizens – journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, who were indicted as part of the “Vatileaks 2.0” scandal shortly after Pope Francis’s election.
In that case, the charges against Nuzzi and Fittipaldi eventually were dismissed on the grounds that the Vatican tribunal lacked jurisdiction. With regard to Torzi, the alleged crimes took place on Vatican territory, so they fall under the authority of the Vatican’s legal system.
However interesting all that may be, stories such as this are also akin to journalistic quicksand, in that it’s easy to be sucked under by the details.
Torzi, for instance, is a fascinating character whose name was already associated with another dubious financial maneuver with a Catholic twist, involving the Rome hospital of Fatebenefratelli (“Do good, brothers”) on the Tiber Island owned by a religious order founded by St. John of God in the 16th century. Back in January, it was reported that two London companies owned by Torzi were under investigation for overcharging the hospital for loans related to debts it was owed by the government of the Lazio region in which Rome is located.
No doubt, Torzi’s role in the London affair, and what he stood to gain had the final stage of the proposed transaction gone through, will be important elements to ascertain at trial. However, there’s also a risk of missing the forest for the trees in focusing too intensely on these oddball characters – who, perhaps conveniently, never seem to be in short supply whenever the Vatican finds itself in trouble.
In this case, what we know with certainty is that whoever else may have been involved, the London deal was approved by senior officials in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State – first then-Archbishop, now Cardinal, Angelo Becciu, and later Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, both in their successive capacities as the sostituto, or “substitute,” of the Secretariat of State, more or less the pope’s Chief of Staff. Ultimately the deal also had to be okayed by Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State.
Yet, to date, Becciu, Peña Parra and Parolin have not been charged or, so far as we know, named as a witness in the unfolding legal process.
Perhaps, as some have suggested, these top Vatican officials were duped by unscrupulous Italian operators, and they’re actually the victims here. Assuming that’s the case, there could still be questions about negligence in vetting figures such as Mincione and Torzi adequately.
In any event, the truth can only be established by a transparent investigation, and right now it’s not clear that’s what’s in store. The precedents aren’t promising, since when another financial scandal pivoting on Rome’s papally owned pediatric hospital Bambino Gesu was put to a Vatican trial in 2017, a central figure, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, former Secretariat of State under Pope Benedict XVI, not only wasn’t charged, he was never called as a witness.
In other words, if the Vatican really wants to get to the bottom of things, they could put senior figures such as Becciu and Peña Parra in a witness chair and ask questions on the public record. Otherwise, simply serving up lay Italian villains with no standing in the ecclesiastical power structure such as Torzi may be good theater, but it’s hard to argue it’s the end of the story.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.