ROME – In the ongoing saga of the Vatican’s shady real estate deal and the megatrial for financial crimes it induced, there are a few names on the list of those indicted that might seem unfamiliar or obscure, but who nonetheless played important roles at key junctures along the way.
The trial, which formally opened July 27 but was postponed until Oct. 5, will not convene again until Nov. 17.
In total, there are 10 defendants in the trial. Of these, three might seem unfamiliar even to frequent Vatican-watchers: Cecilia Marogna, Monsignor Mauro Carlino, and Nicola Squillace, each of whom face charges for a variety of financial crimes.
Over the past year, Marogna has gained widespread attention in the Italian press as the “Dame of Becciu,” or “Lady Becciu,” given her allegedly extravagant style and her close ties to Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, former sostituto at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, a position akin to chief of staff.
However, apart from Marogna’s relatively recent entrance into the media spotlight, each of these figures were relatively obscure prior to 2019, when news of the London deal began to go public.
The London Affair
The whole trial is centered on a major investment into a London property gone wrong, with questionable characters serving as architects for the deal and pulling the strings.
Everything began in 2012 when the then-sostituto in the Secretariat of State, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, was approached by a former contact from his time as nuncio to Angola, who asked the Vatican to invest some $200 million in an oil project his company was overseeing.
Financial advisors within the Secretariat of State asked a company run by Italian businessman Raffaele Mincione to do due diligence on the proposal. Mincione advised against it, and the money was instead invested into his Athena Capital fund.
Mincione invested half of the money into a former Harrod’s warehouse in London’s upscale Chelsea neighborhood, which was to be converted into luxury apartments, and was expected to yield fat profits.
However, by 2018 Athena Capital had lost roughly 18 million of the Vatican’s initial investment, and the Vatican was paying out tens of millions in burdensome mortgage.
Holy See officials then began to seek an exit strategy while maintaining the Vatican’s stake in the London property, and another Italian business broker, Gianluigi Torzi, entered the scene to help craft an exit strategy.
As part of that plan, Torzi arranged a generous 40-million-euro payout to Mincione for the remaining shares in the London property. Along the way, he is accused of swindling Vatican officials by readjusting shares and essentially giving himself full voting rights over the property, without informing the Vatican.
The Holy See then apparently gave Torzi a 10-million-euro payoff to regain control of the property it thought it already controlled.
When the Vatican in 2018 attempted to purchase the remaining shares in the London property, they needed a loan from the so-called Vatican Bank, known as the Institute of Religious Works (IOR), to do it.
Both the IOR’s director and the Vatican auditor general’s office flagged the request as suspicious and sounded the alarm with the Vatican police.
Accused of extortion and abuse of office, Carlino, 45, is the former head of the Vatican information and documentation office, and he also served for a time as Becciu’s personal secretary.
Carlino is accused by prosecutors of flying to London once the Secretariat of State found out about Torzi’s maneuver to pressure Torzi into accelerating the full acquisition of the London property by the Vatican.
It is presumed that during that meeting, Carlino discussed and helped arrange the “sale” of the property’s ownership back to the Vatican.
Thus, Carlino is accused of “abuse of office” for allegedly using his position in the Secretariat of State to obtain the money used to buy out Torzi for the remaining shares of the London property.
Carlino is also accused of failing to report an initial attempt to extort the Vatican by Torzi, in addition to his second, successful attempt.
An Italian legal expert, Squillace has been indicted by the Vatican on charges of fraud, embezzlement, money-laundering and self-laundering.
Sqiullace, who had been involved in previous scandals, was the lawyer called in to manage the transition from Mincione to Torzi when the Vatican decided that it wanted out of the investment.
As the Vatican’s exit strategy was being drafted, Squillace is accused of collaborating alongside Torzi and two Vatican insiders who helped organize the scheme – Italian laymen Enrico Crasso and Fabrizio Tirabassi – to restructure shares in the London property’s holding company so that Torzi maintained control, without the Holy See’s knowledge.
Investigators say Squillace, who known to Torzi but was introduced to officials by another Vatican insider, Monsignor Alberto Perlasca – who managed the Secretariat of State’s Peter’s Pence fund and who is a key witness in the trial – as a trusted legal contact.
Squillace, according to investigators, apparently drafted a memo about the exit strategy that was given to Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and to Becciu’s successor as sostituto, Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, which was later described by Parolin as obscure and misleading.
This memo allegedly praised the advantages of the exit strategy for the London operation, but made no mention of the reallocation of shares giving Torzi control.
Perlasca and Tirabassi allegedly presented this memo to their superiors for approval, which was then granted.
In March 2019, Torzi apparently used money from the Secretariat of State to pay Squillace £224,640 ($304,796.94), even though the Secretariat of State never authorized the payment, and despite the fact that Squillace was never on their payroll, but was hired by Torzi’s company.
The lone woman to face charges in the affair, Marogna, who like Becciu is from the Italian island of Sardinia, has been accused of embezzlement.
These charges, however, don’t necessarily have anything to do with the London affair, but were made on the basis of 500,000 euro (roughly $590,000) paid to Marogna and her Slovenia-based consulting firm from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State while Becciu was still sostituto.
Marogna has defended the money as payment for legitimate business services related to her work as an international security consultant, saying she worked as an advisor to the Vatican on possible risks to diplomatic personnel and missionaries serving in dangerous places around the world.
However, reports in the Italian media have been filled with innuendo over some luxury purchases she allegedly made on the Vatican’s dime, such as stays in fancy hotels and expensive vacations, some of which were taken with Becciu.
Marogna has also defended extravagant purchases like a designer pocketbook, which she said in an interview was “maybe for the wife of a Nigerian friend who was in a position to talk to the president of Burkina Faso.”
She placed under arrest in Milan last year with the Vatican pursuing extradition.
Throughout the frenzy of his ties to Marogna and the nature of their relationship, Becciu has consistently denied anything untoward, insisting in an October 2020 statement that his ties to her involved “exclusively institutional questions.”
Becciu, who was fired from his Vatican post by Pope Francis last September after admitting he paid a charity ran by his brother 100,000 euros in Vatican money, is facing charges of embezzlement, subornation, and abuse of office.
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