ROME – With a marathon seven-hour hearing, the Vatican’s trial against Cardinal Angelo Becciu and nine other individuals, along with three corporate entities, opened with a flurry of procedural issues and defense motions and then adjourned the proceedings until Oct. 5.
Becciu and the other defendants are charged with several crimes, including extortion, fraud and embezzlement, as well as abuse of office, related to a $400 million purchase of a London building that began in 2014.
Becciu is the first cardinal ever to be indicted and tried by a Vatican criminal court, as well as the first cardinal ever to have his fate decided by lay judges rather than fellow cardinals under the terms of a recent reform by Pope Francis.
The cardinal and Monsignor Mauro Carlino, Becciu’s former personal secretary, were the only two defendants present during Tuesday’s hearing.
The case is based on a sprawling, two-year probe into the allegedly criminal management of assets in the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s central coordinating department, including donations by countless Catholics from around the world as part of the “Peter’s Pence” annual collection.
There were some 30 lawyers crowding a room in the Vatican Museums converted into a courtroom Tuesday, 27 representing the defense and the other three representing various interested parties. Half of the attorneys spoke during the hearing.
Becciu came out asserting his innocence, as he has from the beginning.
“I have always been obedient to the pope,” Becciu told journalists at the end of the audience. “He has entrusted me with many missions in my life, he wanted me to come to trial and I am coming to trial.”
“I am serene, my conscience is clear, I have the confidence that the judges will see the facts correctly and my great hope is certainty that they will recognize my innocence,” he said.
Becciu, once in effect the chief of staff in the Vatican for Pope Francis, also announced that he’ll be suing two other well-known personalities around the Vatican for defamation over statements they made to prosecutors and repeated in media interviews.
All the other defendants skipped Tuesday’s hearing, including Italian laywoman Cecilia Marogna, the only woman on trial and a onetime confidenate of Becciu; Swiss laywer Rene Brülhart, the former president of the Vatican’s Financial Intelligence Unit (AIF); and Brülhart’s former right-hand man, Tommaso Di Ruzza.
The lawyer for Enrico Crasso, an Italian financier and former consultant for the Secretariat of State, presented a motion joined by other defense teams seeking to have the case dismissed on the grounds of failures in discovery, meaning the obligation of prosecutors to turn over all files in a timely fashion, and also a lack of jurisdiction, since Crasso’s alleged crimes didn’t occur on Vatican territory.
During the Vatileaks II scandal, charges against the two journalists who reported on the leaked documents were dismissed because the Vatican tribunal concluded it lacked jurisdiction for similar reasons.
At the center of the prosecutors’ case is the Secretariat of State’s investment in a building in London’s upscale Chelsea neighborhood. The Vatican reportedly lost millions in the transaction, including some 15 paid to one Italian broker, Gianluigi Torzi, who’s also on trial, in what prosecutors have described as “a rotten predatory and lucrative system” in the Secretariat of State on Becciu’s watch.
All those being tried have denied wrongdoing. They face prison sentences, fines, or both if convicted.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma