ROME – When the Vatican’s megatrial for financial crimes begins next week, one of the star figures will be Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, a former power-player in the Holy See’s Secretariat of State who is the first cardinal to be indicted by the small city-state.
Set to open Oct. 5 after being postponed during an initial hearing over the summer, the trial involves a list of 10 people facing a variety of charges ranging from abuse of office to embezzlement, fraud, and corruption, among other things.
Indictments against the 10 individuals involved are associated with a shoddy real estate deal brokered between the Vatican’s Secretariat of State during Becciu’s tenure there, and several shady Italian businessmen.
In total, the Vatican lost roughly 150 million pounds ($201,618,000) on the investment, mostly in burdensome mortgage and generous fees to its business brokers.
Becciu himself, a once-powerful figure in the Vatican who fell from grace last year, faces charges of embezzlement, abuse of office, and subornation, meaning inducing another to commit perjury.
Born in 1948 in Pattada, Sassari, on the Italian island of Sardinia, Becciu was ordained a priest in August 1972, and served in a parish in Ozieri.
Shortly after he was enrolled in the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Vatican’s elite training school for diplomats, where he earned a degree in canon law.
After completing his studies, Becciu entered the Vatican’s diplomatic service in 1984, working at the Holy See missions in the Central African Republic, Sudan, New Zealand, Liberia, Great Britain, France, and the United States.
In October 2001, Pope John Paul II named Becciu apostolic nuncio to Angola, giving him the title of archbishop. In November of that year, Becciu was also appointed nuncio to São Tomé and Principe.
He was ordained an archbishop in December 2001 by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who served as Secretary of State to Pope John Paul II.
In July 2009 Pope Benedict XVI named Becciu apostolic nuncio to Cuba, and in 2011, he was appointed to the role of Substitute for General Affairs in the Secretariat of State, referred to as the sostituto and which is a position comparable to the U.S. president’s chief of staff.
It was considered a surprise move at the time given Becciu’s lack of experience working in the Roman Curia, but he stayed for almost a decade and earned a reputation as a tough, effective wielder of power.
Becciu stayed in his role as sostituto from 2011-2018, meaning from the end of Benedict XVI’s papacy and for several years after Pope Francis’s election.
During his time serving in that capacity, several scandals erupted involving the Secretariat of State in which, given his position, Becciu’s name came up in one way or another.
Among the most notorious incidents were the 2012 “Vatileaks” scandal, in which Benedict XVI’s butler stole private letters and leaked them to the press, and a later similar incident in 2015-2016 dubbed “Vatileaks 2.0,” which culminated in a Vatican trial in which four people were charged for leaking confidential Vatican financial documents to the press.
Becciu was also involved with the decision to provide massive loans from the Vatican’s investment bank, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), to bail out the failing Istituto Dermopatico dell’Immacolata (IDI) dermatological hospital in Rome, whose owners ran up huge debts while embezzling millions, bringing the institute to the point of bankruptcy.
Officials within the Secretariat of State, in order to keep the loan off APSA’s books, requested a $25 million grant from the Papal Foundation, an American charitable organization which supports the works of the pope. While that grant was approved, subsequent questions about the murky details of the grant caused significant pushback and controversy.
While Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin said he organized both the loan and the grant, Becciu’s fingerprints were also on the deal, which ended up placing strain on the relationship between the Vatican and the Papal Foundation.
During the brief tenure of Australian Cardinal George Pell as the Vatican’s CFO, Becciu was seen as Pell’s main internal antagonist, at one point effectively blocking Pell’s plan to hire an external accounting firm to conduct an audit of Vatican finances.
Becciu was also among those accused by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former Vatican envoy to the United States, of knowing about past allegations against ex-cardinal and priest Theodore McCarrick, as well as loose restrictions Pope Benedict XVI had placed on his ministry and travel, at a time when McCarrick appeared to be rehabilitated and was traveling often on behalf of the Vatican.
Becciu’s tenure as sostituto came to an end in 2018 when he was made a cardinal and appointed as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
He stayed in that position until September 2020, when he was sacked by Pope Francis amid public fallout for the London deal, and increased pressure from European financial watchdogs.
On Sept. 27, 2020, Pope Francis summoned Becciu to the apostolic palace, where he asked Becciu to resign and stripped him of his rights and privileges as a cardinal, including the right to vote in a conclave, citing, among other things, a donation of 100,000 euros ($115,856.50) that Becciu made while sostituto to a diocesan charity run by his brother in Sardinia using money from the Secretariat of State.
Becciu has defended himself and has denied any allegations of embezzlement involving members of his family.
The London Deal
Becciu’s association with the now infamous London deal began in 2012, when he was approached by an Angolan businessman named Antonio “Mosquito” Mbakassi, an oligarch with close ties to the family of Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos.
Mbakassi had met Becciu during his time as nuncio to Angola, and so approached him directly in 2012 to ask the Vatican Secretariat of State if the Holy See would invest some $200 million in an oil exploration project to be conducted by Mbakassi’s company, Falcon Oil Holdings SA.
At the time, the Secretariat of State’s banker and financial advisor, Credit Suisse, asked the family office and investment fund of a London based Italian financier by the name of Raffaele Mincione, WRM, to do due diligence on the potential loan.
Mincione’s company advised against it, and the Vatican’s money was instead invested in a former Harrod’s warehouse in London as part of a deal struck with Mincione himself.
The property was located in London’s upscale Chelsea neighborhood and was set to be converted into luxury apartments.
However, thanks to Brexit, the property ended up losing a significant amount of its value, causing the Vatican significant losses and hemorrhaging money due to burdensome mortgage payments and inflated fees to their shifty Italian business partners, who are now also facing charges from the Vatican tribunal.
Becciu is charged with knowingly signing off on these inflated fees.
His indictment comes after a recent adjustment to Vatican law by Pope Francis allowing laymen to judge cardinals.
He is the lone cardinal to face charges over the deal, while other high-ranking Vatican officials such as Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and his deputy, Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra, who were aware of the deal and approved of it, are absent from the list on grounds that they were fooled by their underlings.
Becciu has consistently denied any wrongdoing, however, if found guilty, he could potentially face fines or jail time, or both.
Given his former position and high profile, Becciu is widely considered a test case of just how serious Pope Francis is of cleaning up the Vatican’s finances, and any punishment he receives could set a historic precedent for other prelates who find themselves in legal trouble going forward.
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