ROME – For the first time, a cardinal will stand trial in a Vatican court along with nine other individual defendants and three corporate entities, all charged with various offenses for their roles in a controversial London property deal orchestrated by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who oversaw the early stages of the London deal when he served as the substitute, or number two official, was indicted on Saturday along with nine others, including well-known Swiss lawyer René Brülhart, the former president of the Vatican’s financial watchdog unit. The decision comes after a two-year investigation.
The trial will begin July 27, and charges range from extortion, embezzlement and fraud to money laundering, abuse of office and violation of official secrecy.
Becciu, also formerly the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, was removed from his position by Pope Francis late last year, who forced him to resign from the rights and privileges of a cardinal. He faces charges for the crimes of embezzlement and abuse of office, as well as subornation.
Neither Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, nor Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the current substitute, were among those indicted, as prosecutors said they found they were “not fully aware” of the details of the financial maneuvers.
The request for a summons to trial was submitted in recent days by the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, Gian Piero Milano, along with assistants Alessandro Diddi and Gianluca Perone. It concerns personnel of the Secretariat of State and what was the Financial Intelligence Authority, as well as external Italian financiers who had a role in the buying of property in London’s famous Chelsea neighborhood.
In a statement released through his lawyer Saturday, Becciu maintained his “absolute innocence” and said he’s been the victim of a “media pillorying,” saying he looks forward to his day in court.
“The tribunal,” he said, “will establish the absolute falsity of the charges against me and the obscure plots that sustained and fed them.”
Brülhart likewise released a statement Saturday asserting his innocence, calling the indictment “a procedural blunder that will be immediately clarified by the organs of Vatican justice as soon as the defense will be able to exercise its rights.”
“I have always carried out my functions and duties with correctness, loyalty and in the exclusive interest of the Holy See and its organs,” he said. “I face this matter with serenity in the conviction that the accusations against me will fully disappear.”
The Vatican’s Secretariat of State began to purchase the building seven years ago as an investment property intended for development into luxury apartments. According to Bloomberg, sources in the Vatican said that the London property is valued at about $369.1 million, but the Catholic Church lost some $100 million with the deal.
Others indicted include Cecilia Maronga, an intelligence analyst accused of embezzlement; Monsignor Mauro Carlino, accused of extortion and abuse of office; and broker Gianluigi Torzi, accused of embezzlement.
Torzi is accused of embezzlement and fraud in connection with his role in helping the Holy See acquire part of the London building it didn’t already own. Prosecutors allege he extorted the Vatican for 15 million euros in fees, although Vatican monsignors and officials approved the payment and signed contracts giving Torzi voting rights in the venture.
The Vatican’s Prosecutor’s Office also charged several financial institutions with fraud and embezzlement.
The investigation into the allegations began in July 2019, after the so-called Vatican Bank- technically the Institute for Works of Religion issued a complaint, and it was carried out by the Office of the Promoter of Justice and the Vatican’s Gendarmery, in cooperation with the Prosecutor’s Office and financial authorities of Rome, Milan, Bari and other Italian cities.
Saturday’s statement noted that the investigation was also carried out in United Arab Emirates, Great Britain, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Switzerland, which “brought to light a vast network of relationships with operators in the financial markets that have generated substantial losses for Vatican finances, having also drawn on resources earmarked for the personal charitable works of the Holy Father.”
“The judicial initiative is directly linked to the indications and reforms” of Pope Francis, the statement said. This is the first time a cardinal is prosecuted for a crime that does not involve sexual abuse, and the decision to hold him accountable if found guilty could mark a decisive step in the process of reforming the Vatican’s finances.
Last December, Pope Francis issued a decree making charity funds more transparent and tightening controls on Vatican finances after the scandal over the luxury London property deal. It stipulated that the Secretariat of State’s assets were to be transferred to a department called Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA) and will be overseen by the Secretariat for the Economy.
Among other things, the Secretariat of State lost control of “Peter’s Pence”, a fund to which faithful from around the world can contribute to and is aimed at helping the pope run the Church and finance his charities. In past years, the Vatican used this fund to cover budget deficits.
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