ROME – When the Vatican’s so-called ‘trial of the century’ opened on Tuesday, there was a notable absence from among the 10 individuals and companies facing formal charges: Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca.
Born in Como and ordained a priest for the diocese in 1992, Perlasca, 61, led the office within the Vatican’s Secretariat of State in charge of overseeing the Peter’s Pence fund from 2009-2019.
Peter’s Pence is an annual parish collection taken up to support the works of the pope.
Large sums of this fund, which most donors believe supports charitable initiatives, were used to invest in the questionable real estate deal in London at the heart of the trial.
As part of the deal, the Vatican invested some 200 million euros into a fund operated by an Italian businessmen named Raffaele Mincione, who used the Vatican’s money to purchase shares in a former Harrod’s warehouse in London’s upscale Chelsea neighborhood that was set to be converted into luxury apartments.
However, that deal went south after the Brexit vote, with the property losing a vast portion of its value, and the Vatican got stuck paying out millions in mortgage payments, so they enlisted the help of another Italian broker, Gianluigi Torzi, who is accused of orchestrating an exit strategy for the Vatican that involved extorting it for 15 million euros and arranging generous payouts to both himself and Mincione.
The affair was finally exposed in 2018, when the Secretariat of State asked the Institute of Religious Works (IOR), known as the Vatican Bank, for 150-million-euro loan to purchase the remaining shares in the London property as part of the exit strategy. That request was flagged as suspicious, and an investigation was launched.
Torzi and Mincione are also defendants in the Vatican trial.
In total, 10 people have been indicted for a variety of financial crimes related to the London deal, which happened under Perlasca’s watch and which presumably had his oversight and approval at every step along the way.
Yet Perlasca is notably missing from the list of those facing charges in a trial which began July 27, but was postponed until Oct. 5, after the summer vacation.
From key ‘POI’ to key witness
Once Vatican police launched their investigation into the London deal, it was clear that Perlasca was a key target for the prosecution, given his authority over the office controlling the funds that were used in the affair.
In August 2019, Perlasca was removed from his position at the Secretariat of State and transferred to a newly created position at the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court, meaning he was out of reach of the purse strings.
Perlasca was first questioned by Vatican prosecutors in April 2020, giving neutral and unspecific responses; however, by August, he had returned to the prosecutors volunteering to be reinterviewed, providing detailed information as part of their inquiry.
As legal proceedings have played out, Perlasca has given several interviews to notable Italian papers in an attempt to control the narrative about his own involvement in the London deal, portraying himself as a victim and pinning the blame on others.
In a June interview, Perlasca pointed the finger at Fabrizio Tirabassi, a lay employee of the Secretariat of State who worked for Perlasca, and Enrico Crasso, a longtime financial consultant to the Secretariat of State.
Perlasca’s testimony to Vatican prosecutors then went public in July, in which he laid the blame largely on Cardinal Angelo Becciu – who served as sostituto in the Secretariat of State at the time of the London deal, an authoritative position akin to chief of staff, and who is the first cardinal to be indicted by the Vatican’s court.
In his testimony, Perlasca painted Becciu, who is charged with embezzlement and abuse of office, as a predatory aggressor who played on people’s emotions to bend them to his will. Becciu, who has maintained his innocence, launched a lawsuit against Perlasca after this testimony went public.
In yet another twist to the increasingly complex Perlasca narrative, a report was published in Italian newspaper La Repubblica in August allegedly containing the contents of a secret dossier delivered by Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, Becciu’s successor as sostituto, to prosecutors investigating the London case.
Peña Parra in the dossier claims there was an artfully crafted strategy within the Secretariat of State to mislead and pressure superiors such as himself into making hasty decisions without all of the facts which benefited an old-guard cabal. According to Peña Parra, Perlasca was at the heart of that system.
At the time of their report, La Repubblica did not disclose where they got the dossier or how they’d authenticated it, and the Vatican did not respond to requests for confirmation.
When the Vatican announced the list of indicted parties in the London deal over the summer, Perlasca was notably not on the list. Whether he will eventually be charged, or whether he will get some sort of deal in exchange for his testimony, remains to be seen as the trial plays out.
A rivalry surrounds key testimony
One interesting sub narrative to this trial is a showdown between the presiding judge and one of the prosecutors, both respected professionals in the Roman legal scene, over Perlasca’s testimony.
One of these figures is Giuseppe Pignatone, president of the Vatican tribunal and head of the 3-judge panel hearing the case.
Before his appointment to his Vatican gig in 2019, Pignatone served as Rome’s top civil prosecutor, at one point launching the famous mafia capitale case involving collusion between city officials and a group of mobsters who had their hands in a variety of different pots, including migrant welcome centers, trash collection services, and diverting money from the city’s pockets.
The case was extremely high-profile, and in the end 40 people, including public officials and mafia bosses, were arrested in Rome and the surrounding Lazio region.
On the other side of the rivalry is Alessandro Diddi, one of the Vatican trial prosecutors known as one of Rome’s top defense lawyers.
It was Diddi, for instance, who represented one of the key defendants in the mafia capitale case, defending an alleged mobster who supposedly used several small civil organizations as fronts to launder money in the scheme.
While Pignatone won several important rounds at the beginning of that trial, securing convictions for the highest-profile defendants, Diddi had several important victories later on in which he convinced the Italian Supreme Court to drop “mafia association” charges against his client, thus reducing the overall sentence despite Pignatone’s insistence on the link between public corruption and the mob.
While this case has nothing to do with the case at the heart of the Vatican’s megatrial itself, the rivalry between Pignatone and Diddi has come into play again through Perlasca.
When the Vatican trial formally opened July 27, lawyers for Becciu and other defendants raised objections over the failure of prosecutors to turn over all relevant evidence, including video recordings of Perlasca’s testimony.
Other witnesses offered audio recordings, with their words later being transcribed into written documentation, however, Perlasca is apparently the only one who gave his testimony on video.
At the close of the July 27 hearing, Pignatone ordered the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, which is its chief prosecutor, to hand over those recordings to the court no later than Aug. 10. However, a day before that deadline prosecutors responded by essentially refusing the order on grounds that no one had given their consent for the recordings to be released, and it would thus signify a violation of their privacy.
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