ROME – Although trials are supposed to be about the impartial administration of justice, anyone who’s ever watched “Law and Order” knows they’re really about a catfight among the various parties. The system is called “adversarial” precisely because the idea is that such a vigorous contest will, eventually, result in justice.
By that standard, let no one say that the Vatican’s current “trial of the century,” featuring fraud and embezzlement charges against a cardinal and nine others over the purchase of real estate in London by the Secretariat of State with money from “Peter’s Pence”, doesn’t deliver.
At the core of the trial is a showdown between the presiding judge and a prosecutor, both prominent legal figures on the Roman scene, who last butted heads in a long-running court battle over whether the city administration is infested by the mafia.
In one corner is Giuseppe Pignatone, president of the Vatican tribunal and thus head of the three-judge panel hearing the case. Prior to his appointment to the Vatican gig by Pope Francis in October 2019, Pignatone had served as Rome’s top civil prosecutor, a role in which he launched the spectacular “mafia capitale” case involving charges of collusion between city officials and mobsters, in areas ranging from the administration of welcome centers for immigrants to trash collection, with the scope of siphoning money from the city’s coffers.
In the end, some 40 public officials and alleged mafiosi either in Rome or the surrounding region of Lazio were arrested, and the case occupied front pages in the city’s newspapers for the better part of five years.
In the other corner stands Alessandro Diddi, one of the three prosecutors in the Vatican trial but better known as a top-notch criminal defense lawyer in Rome, maybe just a notch below the Italian version of Johnnie Cochran. It was Diddi who represented (and, in fact, still represents, as the prosecutor’s gig in the Vatican isn’t full-time) one of the principal defendants in the mafia capitale case, alleged mobster Salvatore Buzzi, who supposedly used a number of small-scale civil organizations as fronts to recycle money involved in the scheme.
Buzzi has become infamous among Romans, largely due to a police wire-tap of an argument he had with an accomplice in his car in which Buzzi was heard to say: “Do you have any idea how much I make from immigrants? Drug trafficking earns less.”
Pignatone won the early rounds in this clash, securing convictions of the highest-profile defendants in 2015. More recently Diddi has had the upper hand, convincing the Italian Supreme Court last year to quash the charges of “mafia associations” and thus reduce the sentence for his client. In effect, Diddi persuaded the highest court in the country that Pignatone’s much-ballyhooed link between public corruption and the mob was a myth.
Noting the intense personal rivalry between Pignatone and Diddi, Italian journalist Carlo Cambi recently wrote that the Vatican trial is “basically a grudge match.”
In terms of the possible implications of all this, we’ve already seen one example, and it’s a doozy.
During the trial’s opening hearing on July 27, lawyers for Becciu and the other defendants objected that the prosecution hadn’t turned over all relevant evidence, including video recordings of the testimony offered by Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca. It was Perlasca who headed the office for financial administration in the Secretary of State from 2009 to 2019, including the entire period in which the London deal was hatched, and who’s now the star witness for the prosecution.
While other witnesses spoke in front of audio recorders, with their words later converted into verbatim transcripts, Perlasca apparently is the only one to have delivered his testimony in front of video cameras.
At the end of the hearing, Pignatone issued an order to the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, essentially the chief prosecutor, to hand over the video recordings to the court no later than August 10. One day before that deadline expired, the prosecutors issued their response – which, as Cambi noted, amounts to a 21st-century version of Pope Pius VII’s celebrated response when Napoleon demanded he cede control of ecclesiastical territories: “Non possumus, non debemus, non volumus,” meaning, “I can’t, I must not, and I don’t want to.”
Acidly, prosecutors said the court’s order was “unreceivable” because no one involved in the process had given their consent to release the recordings.
“In the opinion of this office, the images and audio recorded in the course of the interrogations, to confirm the authenticity of the records, which hasn’t been challenged by the interested parties, cannot be handed over. This is because, in the absence of any limit on their possible release, the right to privacy of the people involved would be irreparably compromised,” the prosecutors said.
Honestly, it’s hard to see how Perlasca, who’s conducting an aggressive media campaign to present himself as an innocent victim, has much left to lose in terms of privacy. That ship had already sailed – after all, even Pope Francis’s right-hand man in the Secretariat of State, Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, described Perlasca in a memo to the prosecutors in April as the ringleader of a corrupt system in the office intended to pressure superiors to go along with their schemes.
Had Perlasca not flipped on his former colleagues, he almost certainly would have been indicted, and anyway he was bound to be in the public eye.
Regardless of the legal merits, if this were the United States and a District Attorney had refused to obey a court order to hand over evidence, that DA would be wearing an orange jump suit right now and spending some time behind bars on contempt charges. This is the Vatican, however, where the surreal is just another day at the office.
In terms of how to explain the prosecutors’ refusal, perhaps there were other people involved in the recordings they’re trying to protect. Perhaps it’s about defending the prerogatives of the Promoter of Justice, or perhaps they just don’t like the way Perlasca comes off on camera and prefer the written transcript.
Perhaps too, Diddi was influenced by the fact that his most notorious client, Buzzi, always has claimed that his line about immigrants was ripped out of context by anti-immigrant politicians with an interest in making the system look corrupt. Maybe he feared something similar might happen to Perlasca, who’s not quite his client, but certainly his most crucial witness.
But just maybe, Diddi also took a small amount of pleasure from once again frustrating his old rival Pignatone. In any event, their rematch illustrates that in law as well as life, the past really is prologue.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr