ROME – Anyone who’s ever seen the classic mafia movie “Goodfellas” knows the central character, played brilliantly by Ray Liotta, lives the life to the full until it all comes crashing down and he’s busted. He then does what any self-respecting thug would – he flips, becomes the star witness for the prosecution, and then shuffles off into life in witness protection instead of behind bars.
Sooner or later, such a script will be written about the $400 million London property scam at the heart of the Vatican’s blockbuster trial, featuring a sitting cardinal and a cast of shady characters straight out of Hollywood central casting. (Maybe they could call it “Holyfellas”?) When it is, the Henry Hill of the story has to be Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, the conspirator-turned-informant who faces no charges but nonetheless is at the heart of the story.
The current mess centers on the sale of a former Harrod’s warehouse in the posh Chelsea neighborhood of London slated for conversion to luxury apartments to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State by lay Italian financier Raffaele Mincione, one of the Secretariat of State’s former investment managers. The first man to be arrested, back in June 2020, was another lay Italian financier, Gianluigi Torzi, who had been hired by the Secretariat of State to broker the final stage of the building’s sale despite his business connections to Mincione.
In this story, Perlasca is basically Henry Hill of “Goodfellas” to the hilt, if you’ll pardon the expression, with the lone caveat that he didn’t wait to be busted to turn state’s evidence. During the trial’s opening hearing on July 27, prosecutors stressed that Perlasca had not become an informant under duress, because he volunteered before he was ever formally interrogated as a suspect. That’s a distinction without a difference, however, because Perlasca obviously saw the handwriting on the wall and got ahead of the game.
Here’s how a recent book by two Italian investigative journalists described the 59-year-old Perlasca, who for ten years served as the money man within the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, its most powerful administrative department.
Perlasca, according to journalists Mauro Gerevini and Fabrizio Massaro, is “lacking any specific competence, in over his head when not in bad faith, always on the borderline between the interests of the soul and those of the wallet, able to massage a balance sheet with the same ease with which he rubs a rosary.”
From the beginning of the London investigation, it was clear that Perlasca, who was involved in the deal at every stage, had to be a key prosecution target. That seemed confirmed in August 2019, when Pope Francis removed Perlasca from his post at the Secretariat of State and transferred him to a made-up position at the Apostolic Signatura, far from the powers of the purse.
Perlasca was first interviewed by Vatican prosecutors in April 2020 and gave only anodyne responses, what one might expect of a loyal soldier. By August, however, he’d clearly rethought his situation, because he went back to the prosecutors volunteering to be reinterviewed, which is when he started providing far more detailed information.
Since then, he’s gone on something of a PR offensive.
In June, Perlasca gave an interview in which he appeared to assign blame for the London deal to two other figures in the Secretariat of State: Fabrizio Tirabassi, a layman who was a close aide to Becciu, and Enrico Crasso, a longtime financial consultant to the Secretariat of State.
Then in July, the real blockbuster dropped when Perlasca’s testimony to the Vatican prosecutors went public. In it, he not only laid blame directly at the feet of Becciu, but he described himself almost as an abuse victim of the 73-year-old prelate from Sardinia.
“It’s the technique used by predators for surreptitiously insinuating themselves, through the emotions, into the souls of their victims,” he said.
Becciu, who has vigorously maintained his innocence, promptly announced a lawsuit for defamation of character.
Then last Friday came another plot twist in this classic Roman potboiler: A sensational report in the Italian paper La Repubblica claiming to divulge the contents of a secret dossier allegedly deliver by Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, Becciu’s successor as the pope’s chief of staff and his hand-picked instrument of reform in the Secretariat of State, to prosecutors in the London case.
In the typical fashion of Italian journalism, Repubblica didn’t say where they got the dossier or how they’d authenticated it, and, so far, Vatican spokesmen haven’t responded to requests for confirmation.
In the dossier, Peña Parra supposedly describes a careful strategy within the Secretariat of State to pressure superiors, such as himself, into making hasty decisions that serve the interests of an old guard cabal and their allies in Italian finance. He also supposedly describes Perlasca as the lynchpin of that strategy.
“In daily meetings with Monsignor Perlasca,” Peña Parra allegedly wrote, “he’d supply only partial or incomplete information in response to my requests for an explanation, which usually were limited to efforts at justifying whatever was already underway.”
So, one towering dilemma for the judges at the trial boils down to this: What is one to make of Monsignor Alberto Perlasca?
Is he, as Gerevini and Massaro seem at times to suggest, something of a naïf easily manipulated by more clever actors in the drama? Is he, as Perlasca himself wants us to believe, a victim of corrupt advisers and a predatory boss? Or was he, as the alleged Peña Parra dossier claims, a key conspirator in a pattern of cover-up, delay and misdirection – suggesting, perhaps, that he’s only cooperating now to save his own skin?
Evaluating the credibility of Perlasca’s testimony depends on which of those versions of the man, or some other, the judges find most credible. The drama of the trial – what Italians are tongue-in-cheek calling Pope’s Francis’s “Last Judgment” – may thus come to down to waiting for the real Alberto Perlasca to stand up.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr