ROME – In an impromptu press conference held the day after his unexpected resignation was announced, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu argued that he is innocent of accusations of illegal financial activity and will prove his innocence if given the chance.
“In our meeting, the Holy Father told me that I favored my brothers and their companies with money from the Secretariat of State,” Becciu said in a Sept. 25 invite-only press conference he organized the day after his resignation was announced.
“I told the pope: Why are you doing this to me? In front of the whole world, nonetheless,” he said, but insisted that he could explain.
Becciu has been accused of using money from the Secretariat of State and from the Vatican’s Peter’s Pence charitable fund to contract companies two of his brothers hold ties to, to provide favoritism to his home diocese through generous donations, and to make an illegitimate real estate contract in London.
He admitted that one of his brother’s companies was financed with money from the Italian Bishops Conference’s “8xmille” fund, made up of taxpayers’ money allocated to the Catholic Church for charitable causes, at his request and with the knowledge of bishops’ conference officials.
“It’s all reported,” he said, and acknowledged that a window and door company of another brother received money from Vatican embassies, and therefore from the Secretariat of State, but he insisted the business was legitimate.
“I gave money to my brother only because I bought fixtures from his company for the nunciatures in Egypt and Cuba,” he said, adding, “I don’t see any crimes.”
Becciu said he was “shocked” and troubled” by the events of the past 24 hours, saying that until Thursday, “I felt like a friend of the pope.”
What happened “is a blow to me and to my family, the people of my city,” he said, insisting that he never “stole one euro,” and voiced confidence that, “the truth will come out.”
“I don’t know if I’m being investigated, but if they send me a process, I will defend myself,” he said, adding that he accepted the pope’s request to resign “In the spirit of obedience and for the love that I have for the Church and for the Pope,” but insisted that he did no wrong.
“I am innocent, and I will prove it. I ask the Holy Father to have the right to defend myself,” he said.
In a rare and shocking move, the Vatican late Thursday evening announced that Becciu, the pope’s former chief of staff, had resigned not only from his post as the head of the Vatican’s office for saints but also from “the rights connected to being a cardinal.”
Though the one-line statement offered no further details, it is assumed that Becciu, 72, will not be eligible to vote in a future conclave to elect a new pope.
Prior to his 2018 elevation to the College of Cardinals and appointment to head the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Becciu had served since 2011 as the sostituto, or “substitute,” in the Secretariat of State, a position traditionally likened to the Chief of Staff for a U.S. president. The sostituto is largely responsible for the day-to-day management of the Vatican and is the only Vatican official with a standing right to see the pope without an appointment.
Although the Vatican did not clarify the reasons behind Becciu’s surprising resignation, it is widely rumored that he was asked to step down over a shady contract between the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and a swanky London property that had his fingerprints on it, as the deal was made in 2014, when Becciu was still in his role as sostituto.
The deal was brokered through an Italian financier and drew on funds collected by “Peter’s Pence,” an annual appeal directed to Catholics around the world as a way to support the pope’s activity, especially his charitable works.
After news of Becciu’s resignation broke, Australian Cardinal George Pell, who once led the pope’s bid for financial reform as head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy and who was recently acquitted of allegations of child sexual abuse, issued a statement praising Pope Francis’s decision.
“The Holy Father was elected to clean up Vatican finances. He plays a long game and is to be thanked and congratulated on recent developments,” Pell said, adding, “I hope the cleaning of the stables continues in both the Vatican and Victoria,” the latter referring to his home state in Australia.
In his press conference, Becciu referred to the London property deal, insisting that the Peter’s Pence fund “was never touched,” and that the incident did not come up in his 20-minute conversation with the pope.
Becciu has also faced pressure over his decision to send 100,000 euros (just over $116,000) in money from the Secretariat of State to support the Spes Cooperative non-profit organization with ties to the local Caritas branch in his home diocese of Ozieri, and which is overseen by Becciu’s brother, Tonino.
He admitted to reporters that while sostituto he ordered that the money be given in 2017 drawing on the Pence fund, arguing that this was not meant to show favor, but to go toward a “charitable” purpose supporting some 60 families.
“It seems strange to me to be accused of this,” he said, explaining that the sostituto has the authority to allocate funds to Caritas in order to support their projects.
“In 7-8 years, I have never done anything to (favorably) support Sardinia. I know that in my diocese there is an emergency above all with unemployment, I wanted to allocate those 100,000 euros to Caritas,” he said, adding, “that money is still there, I don’t know why I am accused of embezzlement.”
Becciu said he did not intend to “challenge the pope in any way,” but insisted that he wanted to set the record straight, since rumors of his financial misgivings have “become a worldwide fact” in the wake of his resignation.
“Everyone has the right to their own innocence,” he said.
In a statement issued Sept. 25, the day after Becciu’s resignation was announced, Bishop Corrado Melis of Ozieri voiced his “sorrow and respect” for the decision for Becciu to resign.
Melis said the funds they received from Becciu were initially meant to alleviate those in poverty, however, at second thought, it was decided to keep them aside to fund Spes Cooperative as a social project and have yet to be used because Caritas is waiting for more funds to roll in to complete the project.
He insisted that Caritas “is not and has never been the beneficiary of an act of favor, much less undue or illegitimate.”
Melis insisted that his diocese has always dispersed of the funds they receive from various entities legally and has the documentation to prove it, which he said he is willing to share with the Vatican should they request it.
Becciu also said that he will not preside over the Sept. 26 beatification of Mother Maria Luigia Velotti in Naples as he was previously scheduled to do. The archbishop of Naples, Italian Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, will preside over the beatification in his place.
It is unclear what will happen with the Order of Malta after Becciu’s resignation. In February 2017, Becciu was tapped as Pope Francis’s special delegate to oversee the reform of the order and its constitutions after an internal conflict led to a row with the pope that eventually resulted in the resignation of the order’s Grand Master.
The Order of Malta is scheduled to hold elections for a new Grand Master in November after the death of their most recent leader, Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre, in April.
In a Sept. 25 statement, the Becciu family said that reports of financial misdeeds involving their relatives are “baseless and maliciously false, particularly those regarding, imaginative and unprovable, the alleged donations from Peter’s Pence and directed to members of the cardinal’s family or to private entities attributable to some of them.”
“No sum has ever been paid by Peter’s Pence, not has any unjustified intervention for works other than charitable or solidarity works ever reached the Diocese of Ozieri, the diocesan Caritas and, through it, the Spes Cooperative,” they said.
The rumors, then, “are false and therefore slanderous, offensive and disparaging,” they said, pointing to specific reports which they said encourage a “distorted and oriented reading” of the events which both “confuse and induce the erroneous conviction of illegitimate conduct.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen