ROME – As the Vatican’s “trial of the century” lumbers towards its two-year mark in July, it’s now clearer when it might conclude, with the presiding judge recently announcing he hopes to have things wrapped up by the end of the year.
How it will finish, on the other hand, seems as obscure as ever, after new testimony that seemed a mixed bag for the prosecution.
It was in July 2021 that the Vatican’s tribunal ordered ten people and a handful of institutions to stand trial for various forms of alleged financial crime related to a failed $400 million land deal in London entered into by the Secretariat of State. For the first time, the defendants included a Prince of the Church, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who served as the pope’s chief of staff from 2011 to 2018.
Last Friday, the tribunal’s president, Italian jurist Giuseppe Pignatone, announced that while the court originally had hoped to have things wrapped up by this summer, the process will have to extend into the fall.
The aim now, Pignatone said, is to finish hearing all the witnesses this spring, and then to allow the prosecution to wrap up its case before the traditional Italian summer break in August. In late September defense lawyers would present their summations, along with any defendants who wish to be heard directly by the court.
According to Pignatone, if that schedule can be upheld – and it’s not clear it can, given that there are at least 20 lawyers representing the various defendants and parties to the case – verdicts could be delivered as early as October.
When and if that happens, this week may have lowered the odds of a conviction for Becciu.
Aside from the London fiasco, Becciu has also been charged with illicit movements of money from the Secretariat of State to a Catholic charity run by his brother in the Diocese of Ozieri in the family’s native Sardinia.
Yet on Friday, a former bishop of Ozieri, Bishop Sebastiano Sanguinetti, and the current head of the diocese, Bishop Corrado Melis, both testified that Becciu “was never even minimally involved” in running the charity in question, and that more generally, he’d never attempted to influence the financial administration of the diocese.
Both prelates also described Becciu’s brother Antonio as a trusted figure who helped the diocese launch a charitable organization that could give employment to disadvantaged persons, including ex-prisoners, recovering alcohol and drug addicts, people with mental illnesses and the unemployed. That charity is still operative and employs around 70 people, the bishops said, with no suggestion of financial misconduct.
Melis also testified that he had asked Becciu for a donation from the Secretariat of State for a charitable project in Sardinia in 2018 for which he received $100,000, money which is still in the accounts of the diocese, he said.
In addition, this week’s testimony cast new doubt on the stability of the key prosecution witness, Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca.
A former official in the Secretariat of State, Perlasca was among the architects of the London deal seemingly destined to be indicted himself, until he decided in 2020 to cooperate with prosecutors by providing information on his erstwhile colleagues.
Perlasca’s credibility already has suffered during the trial, among other things from revelations that he was indirectly coached in preparing his testimony by Francesca Chaouqui, a key figure in the Vatileaks 2.0 scandal early in Francis’s papacy who was convicted by the Vatican tribunal of leaking confidential documents to journalists.
On Friday, another former official in the Secretariat of State, Italian Monsignor Paolo Vianello, testified as to Perlasca’s behavior during the summer of 2020, when his decision to become a prosecution witness crystallized. At one point, according to Vianello, Perlasca sent a text to Becciu announcing his intention to “get it over with,” which, in context, seemed a possible reference to suicide.
Vianello described Becciu’s efforts to find Perlasca, who eventually turned up at the Case Santa Marta residence in which Vianello called a state of “unease.” Vianello said Perlasca claimed he hadn’t slept for several nights, so a Vatican doctor was called who prescribed a sleeping aid. The Vatican gendarmes, according to Vianello, were also called to keep an eye on Perlasca.
In other testimony, Jean-Baptiste De Franssu, president of the Institute for the Works of Religion, better known as the “Vatican bank,” described the series of events in 2019 which led the bank to alert Vatican prosecutors that something might be amiss in the London deal.
According to de Franssu, throughout 2019 the bank was in conversation with the Secretariat of State and also the Financial Information Authority (AIF), the Vatican’s anti-money laundering watchdog agency, regarding a $150 million loan the Secretariate of State had requested to buy its way out of the London deal.
In general, de Franssu said he felt “pressured” by AIF and the Secretariat of State to issue the loan despite concerns over both due diligence and the amount involved.
Finally, a former official of the Vatican bank, Alessandro Nardi, told the court that one of the defendants, an Italian layman named Fabrizio Tirabassi who worked in the Secretariat of State, had applied a different kind of pressure during a dinner at the well-known Roman restaurant Lo Scarpone.
“There are dangerous people behind the London deal, capable of committing murder,” Nardi recalled Tirabassi saying. Nardi testified that he took the remark as a threat and told both his wife and de Franssu about it, but did not make a formal complaint.
Tirabassi denied the claim, telling the court “I never threatened Nardi, nor did I relay threatening expressions by third parties.”