ROME – After a staggering total of 30 months, 85 hearings stretching over some 600 courtroom hours, 69 witnesses and almost 150,000 pages of documentation, the Vatican’s “Trial of the Century” reached a crescendo Saturday night with guilty verdicts against Cardinal Angelo Becciu and eight of the other nine defendants.
In a sense, the results marked an early birthday present for Pope Francis, who today turns 87, and who set this whole thing in motion in April 2021 by amending the law of the Vatican City State to allow its civil tribunal to judge the cases of cardinals and bishops who work in the Vatican.
So, this long day’s journey into night is finally over, right?
As the saying goes, “Not so fast.” In fact, there’s not just one but multiple shoes left to drop, suggesting that the aftermath may take even longer to play out than the trial itself.
To begin with, there’s the appeals process to consider. An attorney representing Becciu has already announced plans for an appeal, and it’s likely that at least some of the other defendants who were convicted on Saturday may follow suit.
We won’t have to wait long to find out: Under Vatican rules of procedure, someone convicted of a crime by the civil tribunal has just three days to decide whether to file an appeal, and Sunday counts, so the deadline is Tuesday. (As one observer quipped, Sunday may be the Lord’s Day everywhere else in Christendom, but apparently not in the Vatican legal system.)
Presumably, whatever appeal Becciu and the others may lodge will be heard by the Court of Appeals for the Vatican City State, which is made up of six judges, three clerics and three laity. The president is Spanish Archbishop Alejandro Arellano Cedillo, while the Promoter of Justice, in effect the prosecutor, is lay Italian jurist Raffaele Coppola.
If the tribunal and the appeals court reach different conclusions, then it’s also possible that the Vatican City State’s “supreme court,” known as the Court of Cassation, could be asked to adjudicate the conflict. That court is currently led by American Cardinal Kevin Farrell, and also includes Cardinals Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, Paolo Lojudice of Siena and Mauro Gambetti, vicar general for the Vatican City State, along with two lay jurists.
In other words, there may yet be miles to go before we can sleep.
In addition, there’s also the question of making the verdicts stick, for which the Vatican may need international help.
In addition to the jail terms handed down Saturday night, the tribunal also ordered the confiscation of around $180 million in assets and the payment of roughly $220 million in damages. If it actually wants to see any of that money, presumably the Vatican would need to request that its verdicts be recognized by other states where the funds are actually deposited, such as Switzerland and the U.K.
The Vatican’s track record in foreign courts over the London deal is mixed. In January 2022, a Swiss court rejected an appeal from financier Raffaele Mincione to unblock assets worth roughly $70 million that had been frozen in 2021 at the Vatican’s request, spurning Mincione’s claim that he couldn’t get a fair trial in the Vatican.
On the other hand, UK courts twice have dealt setbacks to Vatican requests for cooperation.
In March 2021, Judge Tony Baumgartner of Southwark Crown Court reversed the seizure of assets belong to another Italian financier and defendant, Gianluigi Torzi, concluding that the Vatican’s filings in the case were full of “non-disclosures and misrepresentations” which Baumgartner called “appalling.”
More recently, a different British court upheld Mincione’s request for access to confidential texts and emails between Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the top two officials in the Secretariat of State, as part of a counter-claim by Mincione for reputational damage.
If the Vatican seeks recognition of its sentences in foreign courts, that means different judges will have to review the same evidence, possibly reaching different conclusions.
There’s also the question of whether, once all the appeals have run out, anyone actually will go to jail.
In the past, people convicted of crimes by the Vatican tribunal and sentenced to prison didn’t spend any real time behind bars. In December 2012, for instance, Pope Benedict XVI pardoned Paolo Gabriele, his former butler who’d been convicted of passing confidential documents in the first “Vatileaks” scandal, and who’d been sentenced to 18 months in prison.
In 2016, Pope Francis gave clemency to Spanish Monsignor Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda, who’d been convicted in the second “Vatileaks” scandal and assigned an 18-month prison sentence. In effect, the pope granted Balda conditional release, though without extinguishing the penalty. Balda’s co-defendant Francesca Chaouqui, a former PR official, was convicted and given 10 months, but that sentence was suspended by the court.
In other words, even if all the prison sentences assigned by the tribunal hold up, it’s not automatic that they actually will be served. The uncertainties would be further compounded if there’s a transition in the papacy in the meantime, since a new pope might take a different view of things.
Finally, it seems abundantly clear that while the rulings from the Vatican tribunal are now on record, the jury is still out in the broader court of public opinion.
The contested legacy of the trial was immediately clear Saturday night. Within a couple of hours of the verdicts being released, Vatican editorial director Andrea Tornielli posted an essay to the Vatican News site under the headline, “A trial that guaranteed the rights of all,” insisting that it was a “fair trial” marked by “full respect for the rights of the defendants.”
“The genesis of this process showed that the Holy See and the Vatican City State possess the necessary ‘antibodies’ to identify alleged abuses or improprieties,” Tornielli wrote. “The trial process attests that justice is administered without shortcuts, following the procedural code, respecting the rights of every person and the presumption of innocence.”
Obviously, Tornielli felt the need to say all that out loud because he knows full well many observers have their doubts.
From the beginning, critics have asserted that the trial was fatally flawed, not merely because some found the evidence unconvincing, but because there’s no separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary in the Vatican system, and Pope Francis repeatedly used his authority in ways that critics say stacked the deck in favor of the prosecution.
That was the gist, for example, of a commentary posted just 20 minutes after Tornielli’s essay by Luis Badilla, a veteran Rome-based Chilean journalist who operates the widely read blog Il Sismografo (“The Seismograph”).
Badilla openly called the trial “completely unreliable.”
“This contraption is a drama scripted by the sovereign, and nothing else,” Badilla scoffed. “Everything is made of papier-mâché, and every single element was artfully created, even with retroactive effect, for a single purpose: To serve Pope Francis’s narrative on the fight against corruption.”
“The conviction of Becciu is not the real, central question,” Badilla wrote. “The problem is a tribunal subjugated to the sovereign.”
This debate over the legitimacy of the Vatican’s civil justice system almost certainly will continue, especially given that Francis appears committed to what’s been dubbed the “Vaticanization” of the Holy See, meaning making the church’s universal government, and its personnel, subject to the laws and judgments of the Vatican City State.
The practical result is that from here on out, whenever misconduct by a curial potentate is alleged, then a day in court — or, as in this case, more like two and a half years — probably awaits.