ROME – Pope Francis’s campaign for financial reform in the Vatican continued this week on multiple fronts, from the courtroom to new legislation, appearing both to answer old questions and raise new ones in roughly equal measure.
In the Vatican’s ongoing “trial of the century,” featuring charges of financial corruption against ten defendants, including Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, Thursday brought the release of 2021 correspondence between Becciu and Francis, in which the pontiff refused to endorse Becciu’s version of events on two transactions at the heart of the present trial.
Becciu, formerly the head of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, had served as the pope’s chief of staff from 2011 to 2018.
Thursday also brough testimony from the commander of the Vatican’s gendarmes, effectively its police force, regarding an interview he and a colleague conducted with Becciu in 2020, in which he alleged the cardinal seemed deeply concerned about reports regarding the activity of Cecilia Marogna, a lay woman and self-described security consultant who’d been involved in an ultimately successful effort to liberate a Colombian nun taken hostage in Mali.
Both pieces of testimony appeared to damage Becciu’s defense.
The letters date to July 2021, when the Vatican tribunal first ordered Becciu and the other defendants to stand trial. Becciu was charged for multiple alleged offenses, including his role in a $400 million real estate deal in London and also a transfer of funds to ransom the kidnapped nun. In both bases, Becciu had written Francis seeking his endorsement of two statements prepared by Becciu, which would have the effect of exonerating Becciu on the kidnapping and the London deal; in both cases, the pontiff declined.
As for the meeting with the gendarmes, Commander Gianluca Gauzzi Broccoletti testified that while they discussed the London deal, Becciu appeared unconcerned, but his demeanor changed when the subject shifted to Marogna.
“Up to that point, Becciu was very detached and not overly disturbed,” Gauzzi Broccoletti told the court. “But when I touched on this subject [Marogna], the cardinal got on his knees, put his hands on his face and said: ‘If this comes out, it’ll do great harm to me and my family.”
At another point, Gauzzi Broccoletti said, Becciu said that “if this thing is published, they’ll kill me.”
At the end of Thursday, Becciu spontaneously told the court that Gauzzi Broccoletti’s testimony left him “very perplexed” and “embittered,” insisting that during the original conversation the gendarmes commander actually had told Becciu that he was the victim in the case.
“It’s a new wound added to those I’ve already received in this courtroom,” Becciu said. “My priestly mission leads me to understand the weakness of others and always to forgive, even those who consciously do us harm.”
One question left hanging by the exchange of letters was why, if Pope Francis indeed had serious reservations about the London deal when Becciu first presented it to him, as he claimed in a July 2021, letter, did the pontiff give his blessing to a later effort by the Vatican to buy its way out of the deal, apparently being so pleased with the result that he actually paid for a celebratory dinner?
On Wednesday, the court had been scheduled to hear from Becciu’s brother, Antonio, as well as a priest from the family’s native Sardinia, Father Mario Curzu, both of whom were to testify about yet another charge against Becciu related to the diversion of Vatican money to a charity in Sardinia run by the brother.
In the end, neither man showed up, citing the fact that they’re facing a civil investigation in Sardinia and claiming that the Vatican’s rules of procedure don’t provide sufficient guarantees against self-incrimination.
Also absent was Luciano Capaldo, a London-based Italian architect and urban planner who’s been called upon by the Vatican at one point to evaluate the London deal. Capaldo had appeared for the prosecution last fall, but had not been cross-examined by the defense.
Here, the obvious question is what information these witnesses might have provided, and whether they can be persuaded to appear before the trial ends.
Finally this week, Pope Francis issued a revision to the statues governing the Institute for the Works of Religion, better known as the “Vatican bank.” In general, the revision is intended to streamline governance at the bank and also to clearly distinguish the functions of ordinary administration from oversight and review.
The question that reform leaves hanging concerns the role of the Supervisory and Financial Information Authority (ASIF), the Vatican’s anti-money laundering watchdog unit created in 2010 as part of reforms launched under Pope Benedict XVI.
In effect the Vatican bank is the lone institution directly supervised by ASIF, yet its role isn’t mentioned in the pope’s statutes. In part, that may be because the former leadership of the watchdog unit are also defendants in the current trial, facing charges that they attempted to pressure the Vatican bank into financing the London deal.