ROME – What impact it may have on the course of justice in a Vatican tribunal remains to be seen, but one point is becoming steadily clearer about the case of Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who’s been indicted along with nine other defendants for various forms of financial crime and corruption and who’s set to stand trial beginning July 27.
That point? Like everything else in the 21st century, the Becciu case is becoming politicized and is emerging as a litmus test for broader attitudes toward the Francis papacy.
If you like Pope Francis, if you’re inclined to think of him as a brave reformer struggling against a rigid and hidebound institution, then you probably see Becciu as Exhibit #1 for what he’s up against – a classic creature of the Italian old guard who’s resistant to change, and who, unsurprisingly, is also corrupt and got caught with his hands in the cookie jar.
On the other hand, if you see Francis as an unstable and doctrinally dubious figure, someone who’s fostered a cult of personality around himself and visited vengeance upon anyone who dares defy it, then you may be inclined to see Becciu as a fall guy, a patsy, who’s being put through a show trial in order to insulate the pope and his guys – especially Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State and a core Francis loyalist – from any culpability.
Of course, neither of those perspectives on Francis have anything to do with the legal question of whether the 73-year-old Becciu actually broke the law, but they do go a long way toward explaining the way the case is being covered in the press, especially here in Italy.
To recap, since 2018 the Vatican has been embroiled in a widening scandal involving a $400 million attempt by the Secretariat of State to purchase a former Harrod’s warehouse in the London neighborhood of Chelsea, originally slated to be converted into luxury apartments. Making things worse, the money for the deal came from “Peter’s Pence,” the annual collection marketed to ordinary Catholics around the world as a way to support the pope’s charitable activity on behalf of the poor and needy. The first phase of the deal happened while Becciu was still the “substitute,” meaning the number two official, in the Secretariat of State.
On July 3, ten individuals and three corporate entities were indicted by Vatican magistrates for their roles in the affair, including, for the very first time, a cardinal – in this case, Becciu.
Last Sunday, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica carried a piece that didn’t explicitly cite any sources, but which gave the impression of relying on Vatican investigators, to the effect that Becciu and the two Italian financiers indicted on Saturday had been involved in an elaborate plot to throw off the investigation by ginning up inflated offers to buy the London property for more than the Vatican had spent on it, thus short-circuiting charges of over-paying.
As part of the picture, they quote Becciu at one point as having called Vatican magistrates “pigs” and vowing they’d have to “eat their words.” The Repubblica report also suggested that some of the figures involved in helping Becciu are associated with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his right-wing Forza Italia party.
Yesterday it was the turn of the Italian paper Libero, which carried a piece signed by Vittorio Feltri, one of the country’s best-known (and most controversial) journalists, accusing Vatican magistrates of having deliberately buried a document that absolves Becciu from the main charges in the indictment.
The two-page declaration, signed by Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State and thus Becciu’s supervisor, is addressed to Credit Suisse, one of the banks the Vatican used to deposit money from Peter’s Pence, and dated Dec. 21, 2016. Among other things, Parolin declares that “there are no limits” to the Secretariat of State’s ability to use those funds, and that anything they do is consistent with Vatican law. Parolin also declares that Becciu has full authority to execute contracts for the use of those funds in the name of the Secretariat of State.
How, Feltri asked, can Becciu be charged for exceeding authority that his own boss said explicitly has no limits? How can he be accused of violating Vatican, when Parolin swore that any use of the funds Becciu approved was in conformity with that law?
In reality, there may be less damning ways of viewing both these alleged smoking guns.
The exchanges between Becciu and the financiers could be seen simply as defendants who believe they’re being unjustly blamed seeking ways to convincingly demonstrate their innocence. As for the Parolin memo to Credit Suisse, it dates to 2016, before the full contours of the London deal became clear, and he could argue it was simply a case of misplaced trust in Becciu.
What’s perhaps more relevant for the moment is this: La Repubblia is Italy’s leading left-wing paper and an unabashed cheerleader for Pope Francis – it was founded by Eugenio Scalfari, the elderly Italian journalist to whom Francis has granted several exclusive interviews.
Libero, meanwhile, was founded by Feltri, a self-described “conservative, Euro-skeptic and populist,” who’s been openly critical of Pope Francis on multiple occasions. Just a year ago, he penned a piece in which he suggested that Francis’s romantic treatment of poverty is actually worse than old-style communism, in that it’s more naïve.
In other words – surprise, surprise – it’s the leftist media impugning Becciu, and the right-wingers defending him.
For any legal system, it’s important that its outcomes not only be just but also be perceived as just. Right now, that may be an increasingly steep mountain for the Vatican tribunal to climb, given the obvious political subtext — indeed, the whole thing risks turning Becciu into the Jean Valjean of the Catholic right, someone seen as being hounded by an unjust system.
All this perhaps makes it all the more important that the process unfold with maximum transparency, and its verdicts be as bulletproof as possible.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr