ROME – It was both predictable and inevitable that the Vatican’s “trial of the century,” featuring fraud and embezzlement charges against Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu and nine other individuals plus three corporate entities, and with the participation of attorneys representing other interested parties such as the Secretariat of State, would begin Tuesday with a whimper rather than a bang.
There were 30 lawyers crowded into a makeshift courtroom in the Vatican Museums on Tuesday, 27 of them for the defense, and none of them are getting paid to sit on their hands. They’re going to file motions, issue objections, contest prosecutors’ requests, and so on, and the result will be an avalanche of decisions the three-judge panel will have to make, all of which will take time.
Alas, this isn’t “Law and Order: Vatican.” There will be no swift denouement within the arc of an hour – this trial, already adjourned until Oct. 5, is likely to drag on for most of the fall and possibly beyond.
This is an historic process, not only because it’s the first time a cardinal has been indicted and tried for a crime under the laws of the Vatican City State, but also because it’s the first time a cardinal will be judged for anything by laity rather his fellow cardinals. That’s the product of a reform decreed by Pope Francis in late April, one that most observers felt set the stage for the Becciu prosecution.
Though the 500-page bill of indictment filed by the Promoter of Justice, meaning the prosecutor, cites multiple charges, most center on a complex $400 million real estate deal in London by the Secretariat of State that began in 2014. According to prosecutors, shady Italian financiers connived with Becciu and others in the system to bilk the Vatican for exorbitant fees, part of what they charge was a “rotten predatory and lucrative system” on Becciu’s watch as the former papal chief of staff.
Even the three-ring circus that was the Vatileaks II trial in 2016 pales in comparison in terms of the complexity this time around. Then there were five defendants, not 13, and although some of them kept a high profile in the press (two were actually journalists), none had the throw-weight of a sitting cardinal, or even of someone such as Swiss lawyer René Brülhart, former head of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority and a globally renowned figure in the financial regulatory world.
A glimpse into the procedural headaches – and, perhaps, the struggles of the Vatican system to rise to the occasion – came from a motion submitted Tuesday by lawyer Luigi Panella, a distinguished Roman criminal attorney representing Enrico Crasso, a former financial officer in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and one of the defendants in the case. Panella’s motion was shared by the other defense attorneys.
In it, Panella argues the indictments against Crasso and the others should be quashed because of failures in discovery, meaning the legal obligation of prosecutors to turn over all relevant materials to the defense in a timely fashion.
Panella provides the following tick-tock:
- July 3: On a Saturday, defense lawyers are notified of the indictments and informed that they can review all documents and make copies at the offices of the Vatican tribunal. A deadline of July 23 at 12:30 p.m. is set for presenting all materials they want to use in the defense case.
- July 5: Defense lawyers show up at the tribunal offices the following Monday, only to be told the documents aren’t ready.
- July 7: Two days later, all the defense attorneys submit a motion requesting more time to prepare defense materials in light of the fact they haven’t had access to the prosecution case, and also request that Tuesday’s hearing be postponed.
- July 9: Six days later, defense lawyers get the supporting materials for the indictment, some 29,000 pages of memoranda, bank statements, records of prosecution interviews, and so on. It turns out, however, that some of the files are either missing or impossible to open.
- July 14: Defense lawyers receive a new copy of the supporting materials to solve the problems of the first batch, but some items are still missing. Panella cites documentation obtained from the Swiss government as part of the investigation – the records say there were nine USB drives full of such material, but it’s not in the documents given to the defense.
- July 15: Defense lawyers again submit a motion asking that the deadlines and July 23 hearing be moved back.
- July 15: The court informs the attorneys that the July 23 hearing will take place as planned, in order to deal with the procedural issues that have come up.
- July 23: Panella states in the brief that as of yesterday, many documents acquired during the investigation still have not been provided to the defense.
In terms of the ability to make the trains run on time, that’s not an auspicious beginning.
In the wake of Tuesday’s hearing, the tribunal ordered prosecutors to produce all the missing materials by August 10, including the items cited by the defense lawyers. Also by August 10, prosecutors must submit audio-visual recordings of all the interviews conduct as part of the investigation, including those of Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, a former official of the Secretariat of State who was once a suspect but later turned informant.
The court also gave defense lawyers until August 10 to request any other supporting materials and said prosecutors will have until Sept. 21 to comply. In the meantime, the defense teams have until August 4 to submit their own materials to the court.
Time will tell whether the small band of prosecutors and judges in the Vatican are really up to managing the complexities of a trial on this scale, with so many moving parts.
Pope Francis had better hope that they are, because the truth is that he’s got almost as much riding on the outcome as Becciu himself. Becciu fines jail time or fines if he’s convicted, but for Francis it’s the integrity of his financial reform that’s in the dock.
If the process is seen to be fair and transparent, and if it ends in convictions, the take-away likely will be that Francis’s reforms work. On the other hand, if the whole thing seems a farce – either because Becciu and the other defendants are demonstrably innocent, or simply because the prosecutors and judges are out of their depth – then Francis’s legacy as a reformer could be at risk.
If nothing else, this means that despite the fact the trial has been adjourned until October, the time between now and then may well be make-or-break in terms of its perceived legitimacy. Here’s hoping the small staffs of the prosecutors’ office and the tribunal didn’t have anything too exotic planned for the traditional mid-August ferragosto vacation, because one senses some overtime in their futures.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr