ROME — The former president of the Vatican bank went on trial Wednesday on charges he and his lawyer embezzled $68 million in Vatican real estate sales, a case that shows the Holy See’s willingness to prosecute shady financial deals that may have involved top cardinals.
Angelo Caloia appeared in the Vatican courtroom, while his onetime lawyer and 95-year-old co-defendant, Gabriele Liuzzo, was absent, citing his age. A third suspect died during the investigation.
During the nearly four-hour hearing, the court revealed it planned to appoint technical experts to assess the value of the real estate in question. Prosecutors allege the apartments were sold at below-market rates to offshore companies, and then resold at market rates with the defendants pocketing the difference.
The suspects have denied wrongdoing.
During the investigation, Vatican authorities froze $20 million in the defendants’ Vatican bank accounts, and had another $12 million frozen in Liuzzo’s Swiss accounts, the court heard Wednesday.
The trial is expected to drag on, given Caloia’s defense lawyers submitted preliminary witness lists of more than 50 names, including three current and former Vatican secretaries of state. Also on the list were several other cardinals who over the years were on the commission of cardinals who oversee the Institute for Religious Works, the official name of the bank.
Their inclusion suggests that the defense might try to argue that the real estate sales were conducted with at least the tacit knowledge or approval of the top leadership of the Catholic Church.
Caloia’s attorney, Anna Sammassimo, said she would trim her list back, but reaffirmed she wanted testimony from Cardinals Angelo Sodano and Tarcisio Bertone, who both headed the commission when they were secretaries of state.
In addition, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike requested several documents to be translated into Italian from English. They include the minutes from Vatican board meetings as well as an evaluation of the discrepancies in the properties’ value prepared by Promontory Group consultants, who had been hired by the IOR to conduct a housecleaning of its accounts.
The defense had objected to the Promontory report being included as evidence. The court didn’t immediately rule.
The IOR, as the bank is known, was allowed to join the civil case alongside the criminal trial to try to recover some of its losses.
The Vatican announced the criminal investigation into Caloia, the IOR president from 1989-2009, attorney Liuzzo and the late bank director general, Lelio Scaletti, in 2014 after bank officials discovered irregularities in IOR accounts and operations.
The Vatican bank has long been plagued by scandals, and the last three popes have tried to reform the institution.
In 2013, Pope Francis appointed a special commission to review the operations of the institution, which was followed by publication of the bank’s first-ever annual report.
Crux staff contributed to this report.