ROME – Starting today, a historic fraud trial against an array of people will begin in a modified courtroom in the Vatican Museums.
The list of those being tried by the Vatican criminal court include a once powerful cardinal, an alleged intelligence analyst who used Vatican money to buy high-end handbags. and the man once tasked with putting the Vatican on Europe’s “white list” for financial propriety.
This will be the first time that the Vatican tribunal, made up of lay magistrates, will carry out a criminal trial against a cardinal of the Curia – the central government of the Catholic Church. The allegations against the defendants include misappropriation of funds, extortion, embezzlement, fraud to money laundering, abuse of office and violation of official secrecy.
They face prison sentences, fines, or both if convicted. Though the trial begins July 27 and is expected to have a second hearing the following day, it will likely be postponed for several months, as most public offices and tribunals in Italy and the Vatican close for all of August.
Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who oversaw the early stages of a controversial London property deal orchestrated by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State back when he served as the substitute, or number two official, is the highest-ranking Vatican official to face trial for corruption, and Pope Francis literally changed Vatican regulations to guarantee that the case could proceed.
The cardinal’s former secretary, Father Mauro Carlino, was accused of extortion
Becciu was once a member of the Argentine pontiff’s inner circle, but Francis “promoted him to remove him” by appointing him as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints in June 2018, making him a cardinal shortly before his move.
Soon after his transfer to saints, an official investigation was opened by Vatican police into the Holy See’s 350-million-euro real estate venture in London’s Chelsea neighborhood. Before becoming the number two official of the Secretariat of State, Becciu had served as a papal diplomat in Angola and Cuba. He had been appointed to the Secretariat of State by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.
Last November, he sued L’Espresso for defamation in civil court, claiming that reports they had published on him had damaged his reputation and prospects of becoming pope by making what he described as unsourced claims of embezzling Vatican funds to enrich his family.
From the beginning, Becciu has vigorously asserted his innocence. When the Vatican announced he’d been indicted on July 3, the prelate released a statement saying he was the “victim of a machination” and now that he knows the charges against him, he can “disprove them and prove to the world my absolute innocence.”
“In these long months, everything has been invented about my person, exposing me to an unparalleled media attack,” against which “I did not defend myself, suffering in silence, even for the respect and protection of the Church.”
Though he’s the first cardinal to be tried by the Vatican’s court for corruption, he’s not the first cardinal to be tried by the Church over these charges: Back in 1731, Cardinal Niccolò Coscia was tried, excommunicated and condemned to ten years’ imprisonment in Castel Sant’Angelo by the then pope, due to a series of financial abuses he committed in the Papal States.
Alas, Coscia managed to have his sentence commuted to a fine and was eventually restored: He took part in the papal elections of 1740.
The Vatican’s financial watchdogs
Also on trial is well-known Swiss lawyer René Brülhart, the former president of the Vatican’s Financial Intelligence Unit (AIF). Before taking this role at the request of Benedict, he’d headed Liechtenstein’s financial intelligence unit.
He stepped down as president of AIF in November of 2019, allegedly because his five-year term was up. However, it came weeks after the Vatican’s gendarmery raided his office as part of the investigation into the London property deal and the alleged use of Peter’s Pence, the pope’s charitable fund, to secure the transaction.
Brülhart, charged with abuse of office, denies wrongdoing. In a statement released on the day the trial was announced, he said “I have always carried out my functions and duties with correctness, loyalty and in the exclusive interest of the Holy See and its organs.”
“I face this matter with serenity in the conviction that the accusations against me will fully disappear,” he added.
Tommaso Di Ruzza, once Brülhart’s right hand man as the former director of AIF – created by Benedict to prevent financial corruption within the Holy See- was removed from his role in late 2019, reportedly over his involvement in the London deal.
“I am serene and confident that the truth of the facts and my innocence will emerge and will be clarified soon by the Vatican judicial authorities,” the layman said earlier in July, when charges against him for embezzlement, abuse of office and violation of official secrecy were announced.
Francis had been elected on a mandate of reform and to continue the fight began by his predecessor to erase the Holy See’s reputation as a financial pariah and offshore tax haven.
Much of that effort was spearheaded by di Ruzza, who helped rewrite the Vatican’s anti-money laundering laws. Under his leadership and that of Bruelhart’s, the Vatican secured agreements with more than 60 countries to exchange financial information in the fight against money laundering and tax evasion.
At the center of the alleged scandal are two Italian investment brokers who have denied wrongdoing: Gianluigi Torzi and Raffaele Mincione.
In 2014, the Secretariat of State invested more than 200 million euros, much of it from Peter’s Pence, in a fund run by Mincione to buy 45 percent of the commercial and residential building in London that had once served as storage for Harrod’s.
According to the indictment handed down on July 3, Mincione tried to deceive the Vatican, that subsequently tried to end the relationship turning to Torzi instead, to try to buy the rest of the building. He, in turn, was accused of extorting the Vatican for 15 million euros to get control over the building the Holy See though had already acquired.
They have been accused of fraud, money laundering, embezzlement and other charges.
Only one woman is on trial, an Italian by the name of Cecilia Marogna, who is accused of embezzlement. She used to work with Becciu and was reportedly given over half a million euros to pay ransoms to free a Catholic nun who had been kidnapped.
However, reports on the bank records from her Slovenian front company show the wire transfers she received were instead used in Prada and Louis Vuitton shops as well as boutique hotels.
Like everyone else involved, she denies wrongdoing, arguing that the money she received from the Vatican was legitimate compensation and reimbursement for her intelligence-related expenses.
Those not being tried
Mosnignor Alberto Perlasca, ex-administrative office head in the First Section of the Secretariat of State, led the office that actually handled the London investment. In plain English, he was responsible of managing Vatican investments until July 2019, when Francis transferred him to the Vatican’s supreme court.
However, in Feb. 2020 his offices were raided after “initial interrogations of employees under investigation.” Funds for the initial purchase of the London real estate were drawn from Peter’s Pence, which Perlasca was responsible for overseeing.
Yet, Perlasca changed sides, provided “precious” contributions and became a witness for the prosecution.
Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra, who took over Becciu’s role in the Secretariat of State as Vatican chief of staff was also questioned by prosecutors, as was his boss, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, but neither have been charged with wrongdoing.
The process against Becciu and nine others is a step up on two previous Vatican trials regarding financial wrongdoing. Known as Vatileaks and Vatileaks II, the 2012 and 2015 scandals did little to dissuade criminal financial activities with Vatican funds. This week’s trial, however, has the potential of cementing Francis’ reform; Possibly through fear if nothing else, since those suspected of wrongdoing can no longer hide behind their clerical collars.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma