Historic Vatican indictments raise as many questions as they answer

Historic Vatican indictments raise as many questions as they answer

Cardinal Angelo Becciu talks to journalists during press conference in Rome, Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. (Credit: Gregorio Borgia/AP.)

How the responses are fleshed out in the days and months to come will determine whether Saturday is indeed remembered as a truly historic turning point, or merely the latest chapter in everything in the Vatican changing so that everything can stay the same.

News Analysis

ROME – Toward the end of this week, rumors made the rounds in the Vatican press corps that Friday would be a venerdi di fuoco, meaning a day of fire. Friday came and went without sparks, so we breathed a sigh of relief. It turned out to be short-lived, however, because Saturday brought a blaze which, depending on what happens next, could burn out of control.

The Vatican’s criminal tribunal announced yesterday it had indicted 10 people and three corporate entities for various forms of financial corruption, much of it centering on an ill-fated $400 million real estate deal in London carried out by the Secretariat of State, long the 800-pound gorilla among the Vatican’s various departments.

For the very first time, one of those defendants is a Prince of the Church – Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the former sostituto, or “substitute,” meaning the number two official in the Secretariat of State from 2011 to 2018.

Becciu immediately released a statement through his attorney asserting his “absolute innocence,” as he has from the beginning of the saga, and other defendants put out similar declarations.

It was one of those days where you could almost hear and feel the tectonic plates of history shifting beneath your feet. In the Catholic system, being a cardinal used to mean never having to say you’re sorry; now, it seems, even cardinals can be indicted and prosecuted, just like everyone else.

Yet among those following the course of Pope Francis’s reform, the indictments also appeared to raise as many questions as they answered. How the responses are fleshed out in the days and months to come will determine whether Saturday is indeed remembered as a truly historic turning point, or merely the latest chapter in everything in the Vatican changing so that everything can stay the same.

Question 1: What about Parolin and Peña Parra?

Two other figures involved in the London scandal were not among those indicted Saturday: Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, and Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the current sostituto and thus the successor to Becciu. According to background on the investigation published by Vatican News, the official news outlet, prosecutors found that neither man “had been effectively informed to be fully aware of the juridical effects that the different categories of actions would cause”.

The London deal began in 2013 when the Secretariat of State, with Becciu still in office, decided to invest about $240 million to purchase a partial share in a former Harrod’s warehouse in the upscale Chelsea neighborhood, with the idea being at the time to convert the property into luxury apartments. Through various twists and turns, the affair continued until 2019, by which time Peña Parra had taken over. Through it all, Parolin was the man ultimately in charge.

There’s a clear paper trail showing that Parolin and Peña Parra had been briefed on the details of the various transactions involved and gave their assent. A Nov. 25, 2018, memorandum from Parolin, for example, clearly states, “I’m favorable to the execution of the contract” with one of the lay Italian financiers, Gianluigi Torzi, now under indictment.

That memo, among other documents, was the basis for a British judge earlier this year lifting a freeze on Torzi’s assets in the UK, concluding that the evidence against Torzi couldn’t sustain a conviction because his moves were fully approved by the Vatican’s most senior officials.

If it’s true that Parolin and Peña Parra were deceived by their own staff and other Vatican officials, acting in cahoots with external consultants, that would appear to raise troubling questions about their judgment and competence.

For many observers, however, it’s tempting to reach the conclusion that Parolin and Peña Parra were spared at least in part because they’re close to Pope Francis and thus politically “untouchable.” Becciu, meanwhile, had fallen out of favor with the pontiff in 2018 and could be seen as “expendable.”

The Vatican’s time-honored, old guard strategy in criminal matters has been to insulate the higher-ups from blame while allowing some smaller fish, usually a layman or a minor cleric, to take the fall. The cynical perspective on these indictments thus would be that the only thing different here is that the word “minor” has been taken out of the playbook; now, if papal expediency demands, even a cardinal may be cut loose.

How credible the findings about Parolin and Peña Parra are doubtless will come up at trial, since defense attorneys can be expected to argue that whatever their clients did was fully endorsed and authorized from above.

It’s also not yet clear whether the tribunal will permit Parolin and Peña Parra to be called as witnesses during the trial, which is set for its first hearing on July 27. When former Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone was at the center of an entirely different corruption case in 2017, the court refused to allow defense attorneys to question him, leading to objections about due process.

Question 2: Why René Brülhart?

Becciu may be the highest-profile defendant among the ten, but arguably he’s not the most surprising. That distinction probably belongs to Swiss lawyer René Brülhart, former president of a new Vatican watchdog unit called the “Financial Information Authority,” or AIF, created under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. Prosecutors charge that Brülhart, along with his former deputy Tommaso Di Ruzza, “seriously violated the basic rules governing supervision” by lending a patina of legitimacy to an illegitimate payment to Torzi.

It’s a somewhat puzzling finding, given that under the statutes of AIF (now known as “ASIF,” the Financial Supervision and Information Authority”) it has no supervisory power whatsoever over the Secretariat of State, and didn’t at the time Brülhart led it. The lone Vatican entity it supervises is the Institute for the Works of Religion, popularly known as the “Vatican bank.” In the abstract, it’s thus hard to know which “basic rules governing supervision” Brülhart is supposed to have violated.

Moreover, Brülhart was a non-executive president of AIF, meaning that while he provided direction and vision, operational authority was invested in Di Ruzza. Even if he’d wanted to okay a shady deal, he had no authority of his own to do so.

By way of background, Brülhart previously served as head of the financial intelligence unit of Liechtenstein from 2004 to 2012, when he helped end the tiny principality’s reputation as a financial pariah and earn a spot on “whitelists” of virtuous financial players. During his term, Brülhart was elected the vice-chair of the Egmont Group, an international consortium of financial intelligence units facilitating the share of information to combat financial crime and the financing of terrorism.

When Brülhart was brought on board under Benedict, it was taken a sign of the Vatican’s seriousness about reform. During his term, he helped create a reporting system for suspicious transactions that won praise from evaluators from Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency.

Some observers here suspect it may be those Moneyval evaluations that prompted the indictment, since they often praised Brülhart but criticized the Promoter of Justice’s office, since 2013 led by Italian layman Gian Piero Milano, for slowness in prosecuting financial crime. Cynics wonder if including Brülhart among the indictments is a form of payback from Milano for a perceived grudge.

In a statement released Saturday, Brülhart called his indictment “a procedural blunder,” predicting that it will fall apart as soon as his defense is able to make a case.

In the meantime, another thought occurs: Though Brülhart earned a handsome salary by Vatican standards – reportedly $425,000 a year, plus an additional $6,000 a month for personal expenses including regular travel to Rome – it was likely a pay cut by the conventional standards of the financial world in which he moves. Yet he answered the summons of a pope and spent six difficult years trying to build a new financial intelligence system for the Vatican, and, in the end, this is his exit prize.

No matter what happens at trial, other professionals out there, with talents that could be of use to the Vatican someday, might look at the Brülhart story and wonder, “Why would anybody in their right mind take the gig?”

Question 3: Where’s the transparency?

When the indictments were handed down at noon Rome time on Saturday, all reporters had to go on was a two-page Vatican statement, which mostly consisted of a list of the people named and a general description of the charges they face – “abuse of office,” for example, or “embezzlement” and “extortion.”

The statement didn’t specify what the defendants are alleged to have done to justify those charges.

A couple of hours later, Vatican News published a detail background piece providing considerably more detail, though it still did not specify exactly which laws the defendants are alleged to have broken and how their conduct was illegal under the precise terms of those laws.

Moreover, at least one of the defendants, Brülhart, claimed that as of Saturday at 2:30 p.m., he had not received “any formal notification in accordance with Vatican law,” meaning that he had not been presented with a formal bill of indictment.

In truth, there is a sprawling, 488-page bill of indictment from the Promoter of Justice’s office breaking down the charges which was prepared in advance of Saturday’s announcement. However, a decision apparently was made not to release it to reporters or even to defendants before going public with the charges.

There may well have been legitimate strategic reasons for that omission, but some observers in Rome wonder if Vatican officials simply didn’t want anyone taking too close a look at the fine print during the first news cycle, preferring instead what they got – a largely laudatory round of headlines in the global press along the lines of, “In historic first, Vatican indicts a cardinal, nine others for financial crime.” (By the way, that includes Crux.)

Given that one of the watchwords of the current reform is supposed to be “transparency,” questions may be raised about exactly how transparent this process will turn out to be.

For now, one thing seems clear: At least some of the defendants in this case, including Becciu, do not seem inclined to go gently into that good night. Instead, they appear prepared to mount a rigorous defense, and especially given everything Becciu knows about where the bodies are buried in the Vatican, that could get interesting in a hurry.

Most likely, the hearing on July 27 will lead to a postponement for the traditional Italian vacation period in August, meaning it may be September when things start in earnest. If so, the trial seems destined to become the Vatican’s “must-see TV’ of the fall season.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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