ROME – As news circulated over the weekend about the release of a Colombian nun kidnapped by jihadists nearly five years ago, Italian media provided a striking footnote to the saga: An Italian lay woman currently on trial in the Vatican for financial crimes apparently had a hand in securing the nun’s freedom.
Colombian Sister Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti was serving as a missionary in the African nation of Mali when she was kidnapped by a group of armed militants in February 2017, after they had broken into the parish in the Karangasso village, near the Burkina Faso, where Narváez was serving.
A member of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate, Narváez was in charge of her order’s mission in Mali, which ran a health center, an orphanage, and a center for women’s literacy and catechesis.
She reportedly offered herself to the abductors in place of two younger nuns they were preparing to take. She was kidnapped alongside an Italian priest by the name of Father Pierluigi Maccalli, and an Italian businessman named Nicola Chiaccio, both of whom were freed one year ago.
Narváez’s release was announced over the weekend, after some four years and eight months of negotiating by multiple governments and intelligence services. She was present in Rome to attend Pope Francis’s Oct. 10 Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the opening of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality.
Narváez received a special greeting from the pope before the Mass began, and he stopped by again to give her a blessing on his way out after the Mass had concluded.
Narváez’s release apparently was the product of complex behind-the-scenes negotiations, and as analysts and reporters attempt to piece the story together, several Italian media outlets, including the widely read newspaper La Repubblica and the state broadcast outlet RAInews, have reported that one the players involved was Cecilia Marogna, a self-described international security consultant from Sardinia currently on trial at the Vatican on charges of embezzlement.
The lone woman to be indicted in a megatrial largely pivoting on a real estate deal in London gone wrong, Marogna is facing charges over the payment of 500,000 euro (roughly $590,000) to herself and her Slovenia-based consulting firm by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, at the request of fellow Sardinian Cardinal Angelo Becciu – who has himself been indicted for embezzlement and abuse of office – while he was serving as sostituto, akin to the pope’s chief of staff.
Ever since her name first emerged amid a Vatican police investigation into the financial dealings of the Vatican Secretariat of State, Marogna has defended the money she received as payment for legitimate business services related to her consultancy work, saying she served as an advisor to the Vatican on possible risks to diplomatic personnel and missionaries serving in dangerous places around the world.
Some reports, however, claim that Marogna allegedly made several luxury purchases on the Vatican’s dime, including designer pocketbooks, fancy hotels, and expensive vacations, at times taken in Becciu’s company. In most quarters of the Italian media, she’s become known as “the cardinal’s dame” in reference to her close ties to Becciu.
Marogna was placed under arrest in Milan last year with the Vatican pursuing extradition.
Reports now suggest that one of the cases upon which Marogna consulted for the Vatican was that of Narváez and the demands for her ransom.
In December 2018, months after a video of Narváez surfaced begging for the pope’s intervention, Becciu reportedly exchanged text messages with Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca – a key witness in the financial trial, and the former head of the finance office within the Secretariat of State – about Narváez’s case.
Becciu apparently told Perlasca to send money to Marogna as a payment for her efforts in mediating for Narváez’s release, and to divide the payment into several installments.
In the text messages, Becciu reportedly told Perlasca that things were speeding up in Narváez’s case and that money needed to be made available to Marogna immediately, so Becciu provided account information and requested the transfer of 75,000 euros to be marked as a “voluntary contribution for a humanitarian mission.”
In a second text, Becciu allegedly said that Narváez could potentially be freed, and implied that the payment was to be made with the authorization of Pope Francis himself, who, Becciu said, was aware of the plan and wanted to keep the situation secret.
Many throughout the world have voiced joy and relief at news of Narváez’s release, including the official Twitter account of the presidency of Mali, who praised Narváez for her “courage and bravery.”
After Narváez’s release, a commission for missions of the Colombian bishops’ conference released a statement voicing “immense joy” at the news.
Bishop Mario de Jesús Álvarez Gómez of Istmina-Tadó, who leads the commission for missions, thanked those who assisted in her release, saying, “we give glory and blessing to God for this joyous moment of the universal church and the church in Colombia.”
Marogna herself has not commented.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen