ROME – Over the weekend Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who last month was fired from his Vatican job over accusations of embezzlement, has announced plans to take legal action against media outlets saying he bribed a witness in the abuse trial of his former nemesis, Australian Cardinal George Pell.
In a statement issued Oct. 17, Becciu’s lawyer, Fabio Viglione, referred to allegations that his client interfered in Pell’s legal process, “vigorously” insisting that Becciu “has never interfered with it in any way whatsoever.”
“Furthermore, given the apparent will of some news organizations to falsely depict an alleged, albeit non-existent, activity to taint the evidence of Cardinal Pell’s trial, Cardinal Becciu will promptly resort to the Judicial Authorities to protect and defend his honor, so gravely damaged,” Viglione said, but offered no further details.
Pell was formerly prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy and had been entrusted with cleaning up the Vatican’s finances, and was known to be at odds with Becciu over the Holy See’s financial reform. In 2017 he was convicted but later absolved by Australia’s High Court of allegations he molested two choirboys in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne while he was archbishop in the 1990s.
Viglione had previously indicated Becciu might take legal action against media outlets publishing a litany of scandalous allegations without proof or sources, saying in an Oct. 7 statement that he was depending on “the balance between freedom of press and the right to a proper information that is respectful to every person,” and threatening to contact competent judicial authorities in order “to preserve his honor and his reputation as well as his family’s.”
Becciu resigned from his post leading the Vatican’s department for saints and from his rights and duties as a cardinal Sept. 24 at the request of Pope Francis, who said he had lost trust in Becciu after learning that Becciu had wired roughly $116,000 in Vatican funds to a charity overseen by his brother, Tonino.
Shortly after, further accusations arose in Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, which speculated that Vatican investigators were looking into whether Becciu had wired 700,000 euros ($823,000) in Vatican money to an Australian bank account and whether the funds were related to Pell’s sex abuse trial, potentially to bribe Pell’s accuser.
This prompted Vivian Waller, a lawyer for Pell’s accuser, to release a statement rebuffing the allegations, insisting her client hadn’t been bribed and that they deny “any knowledge or receipt of any payments” related to his accusation against Pell.
To date there has been no confirmation of whether the Vatican is investigating Becciu or his activities. Civil authorities have apparently launched an investigation, but no charges have yet been made.
Yet despite whatever the status of a potential investigation into his activities might be, it is still unsurprising that Becciu would choose to avail himself of his legal right to defend his honor, not only because most of the media reports detailing accusations against him are unsourced, but also because such lawsuits are extremely common in Italy.
A 2016 study by watchdog group Ossigeno, for example, reports that each year more than 6,800 claims are filed in Italian courts for defamation, most of which could result in criminal as well as civil penalties.
Those cases typically require two and a half years for a police investigation to be conducted and a further six years to reach the first level of judgment, meaning that if Becciu goes through with his complaint, it could drag on for a while.
In addition to lining his brothers’ pockets and interference in Pell’s trial, Becciu has also been accused of several other wrongdoings, including parking money in foreign bank accounts and investment funds along with his brothers; possibly investing Vatican money into speculative hedge funds; demanding a 150 million euro loan from the so-called “Vatican bank” without sufficient explanation; and sending Vatican money to an Angolan oil company.
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He has also been accused of brokering a deal for a beer company run by his brother Mario which involved the Catholic charity Caritas in Rome in which the company donated a percentage of its proceeds to Caritas in order to use their logo.
Other accusations making a buzz in recent days are rumors that Becciu sent some $500,000 over four years to a fellow Sardinian named Cecilia Marogna — a global security consultant who was apparently consulted by the Vatican – for a personal motive, either fraud or because he and Marogna were romantically involved. Marogna has since been arrested in Milan and the Vatican is currently requesting extradition.
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Becciu has denied accusations regarding the financial activities of he and his brothers and has insisted that money transfers to Marogna were for legitimate business reasons, meaning no crime was committed.
So far, the only accusation he has threatened to take legal action against is related to the Pell trial, but should things continue to heat up, he could decide that further legal action is warranted. Only time will tell whether he will be cleared, or whether the allegations against him prove to be true.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen