ROME – Though it hardly made a dent in the weekend’s news cycle given Pope Francis’s bombshell crackdown on the Latin Mass, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu announced his latest lawsuit Saturday, in this case suing an Italian newspaper called La Verità for defamation over a report regarding movements of money in Becciu’s home diocese in Sardinia.
In effect, the report claimed that Becciu caused around three million Euro, most of it from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and the Italian bishops’ conference, to be deposited in an account of a branch of Caritas in the Diocese of Ozieri in Sardinia, an account which, at the time, was controlled by his brother. From there, the Verità report claimed, much of the money was either spent for non-charitable ends or simply disappeared.
A statement from Becciu’s attorney, Rome-based criminal lawyer Fabio Viglione, described the report as “alarmist propaganda not justified by the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of the press.”
On Sunday, a lawyer acting for Bishop Corrado Melis of Ozieri released a statement backing Becciu, insisting on the “unequivocal and incontestable absence of interference or influence by anyone, much less His Eminence Cardinal Angelo Becciu,” on how the local Caritas handled its money, attributing the Verità report to “the drunken speculation of journalistic outlets.”
Though it’s difficult to keep an accurate count, the lawsuit against La Verità appears to be one of around ten Becciu has either filed, or threatened to file, against various press outlets and individuals. Most notably, Becciu has filed one defamation lawsuit demanding $12 million in damages and threatened at least four more against L’Espresso, sort of the Time magazine of Italy.
At various points, Becci has also announced plans to sue Italy’s national TV broadcaster, Rai, as well as Corriere della Sera, the country’s newspaper of record.
The flurry of litigation is largely related to Becciu’s role in the Vatican’s $400 million London real estate scandal, including the fact that Becciu recently became the first cardinal in history to be indicted by Vatican criminal prosecutors and to be cleared for trial by the pope. The first hearing in that trial is set for next Tuesday, July 27, though the expectation is that it may be adjourned to the fall.
From the beginning, Becciu has vigorously asserted his innocence. Notably, he hasn’t tried to sue the Vatican itself or its magistrates, in part, possibly, because the Vatican’s sovereign immunity would make such a case almost impossible to hear in an Italian court.
Depending on how Becciu’s lawsuits fare, they raise the deeply intriguing prospect that two different courts could be asked to adjudicate basically the same set of facts, one a Vatican tribunal and another an Italian secular court, either simultaneously or sequentially.
In effect, Becciu’s hope appears to be to ensure two bites at the apple – defending himself vigorously before the Vatican tribunal, but simultaneously demanding that a different court, one that doesn’t work for the pope, provide another set of eyes.
It’s not a slam-dunk. While Italy does have fairly draconian defamation laws – in theory, a reporter could be fined up to $30,000 and spend up to six years in prison if found guilty – most defamation suits are dismissed fairly early in the process.
According to the Italian National Statistics Institute (Istat), in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, there were a total of 9,479 defamation suits filed against journalists in Italy, but 60 percent were dismissed after a preliminary investigation and just under seven percent actually went to trial.
These suits are often more effective against smaller media outlets or individual journalists, without deep pockets to defend themselves and facing potentially crippling costs to mount a defense even if they’re eventually vindicated. They tend to have less impact on larger and more established operations, such as L’Espresso, or RAI, or Corriere della Sera, for whom fighting off nuisance suits is a line item in a much larger budget.
Nonetheless, Becciu only needs one of his filings to survive in order to set the stage for a judicial round of “dueling banjos,” in this instance with secular judges providing an unintentional layer of checks-and-balances on whatever the Vatican tribunal ends up concluding.
To date, the Vatican magistrates’ track record when an independent, external judge reviews their findings is mixed.
In March, British judge Tony Baumgartner of Southwark Crown Court was asked to hear an appeal from London-based Italian financier Gianluigi Torzi, now one of the principal defendants in the looming Vatican trial, who had appealed the seizure of his assets following a Vatican request.
Baumgartner clearly wasn’t impressed, ruling that the Vatican’s “non-disclosures and misrepresentations” in its legal filing were “so appalling that the ultimate sanction” of reversing the asset seizure was appropriate.
Among other things, Baumgartner questioned why the two top Vatican officials who authorized the London deal, the No. 2 in the secretariat of state, Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, and his boss, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, hadn’t provided a witness statement to back up prosecutors’ claims.
That bit of obiter dictum, perhaps, hints at Becciu’s endgame.
So far he’s had little luck with Vatican magistrates with the argument that everything he did was approved by Parolin and continued, even expanded, by Peña Parra. Instead, those magistrates have accepted claims from Parolin and Peña Parra that they were duped by Torzi and other financiers, in cahoots with Becciu.
A defamation trial in an Italian court, however, presumably would afford less benefit of the doubt to two figures who just happen to form the current power structure at the Vatican under Pope Francis. At the least, Parolin and Peña Parra could be called as witnesses, and then would have to decide whether to invoke their sovereign status to avoid answering the summons – creating the impression, perhaps, that they have something to hide.
In any event, one point seems clear: No matter what the Vatican tribunal decides, it’s unlikely to be the last word in Angelo Becciu’s already improbable story.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr