ROME – As the Vatican’s “trial of the century” lumbers towards its expected conclusion before the end of the year, it’s becoming increasingly clear that in rendering a verdict, the three-judge panel hearing the case isn’t just being to asked to choose between guilt or innocence for the ten defendants.

In fact, the judges are also facing a choice between two competing narratives, which, in summary form, might be expressed as “conspiracy” versus “ineptitude.”

On the one side is the story being told by chief prosecutor Alessandro Diddi, the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, which is a tale of a large-scale criminal conspiracy to defraud the Vatican involving shady Italian financiers, corrupt Vatican officials and advisors, and, last but certainly not least, the pope’s own former chief of staff, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu.

On the other is the narrative propounded by the defense, and put in epigrammatic fashion yesterday by Cataldo Intrieri, a lawyer representing Fabrizio Tirabassi, a former financial official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State: “A bad investment isn’t a crime.”

“Committing a crime means acting with intent,” Intrieri said.

This narrative holds that what happened with the controversial $400 million purchase of a former Harrod’s warehouse in London wasn’t the product of a complex Machiavellian scheme, but rather misunderstandings, poor judgment and haste, carried out by people who often were simply out of their depth.

Once things went bad, this narrative holds, recrimination and finger-pointing inside the system led to the current trial, which isn’t so much about a search for justice as it is for scapegoats.

In effect, it comes down to a question of plausibility. Is it more likely that a cabal inside and outside the Vatican, composed in some cases of people who never even met, engineered and carried out a highly sophisticated crime – or that, in a small and closed world such as the Vatican, people who got their jobs less for their competence than for their connections simply screwed up?

Intrieri on Thursday argued that the latter is far closer to the truth.

“The entire [prosecution] reconstruction of the negotiations regarding the building in London is that of a grand plot in which everyone was competing, of a colossal fraud which then led to extortion,” Intrieri said.

“But that’s an after-the-fact reconstruction,” he said. “At the time, nobody thought they were part of a grand plot.”

“Hindsight may be 20/20,” he said, “but you don’t assess criminal liability with hindsight.” He noted, among other things, that throughout two years of investigations and hearings, it’s still never been shown that most of the defendants ever gained any direct financial benefit from their alleged misconduct.

Intrieri said that from the beginning, the current trial has been seen as a symbol of the broader efforts at financial reform under Pope Francis, intended to usher in a new culture of transparency and accountability.

“The problem with symbolic trials, from Nuremberg to Mani pulite, is that often the instrument of a trial overwhelms the logic of the law, and the ‘symbol’ in this type of trial too easily becomes the accused, with the risk of creating scapegoats,” he said.

(Mani pulite, or “clean hands,” refers to a series of judicial investigations and trials in Italy in the 1990s that exposed widespread political corruption.)

Intrieri drew on sociology to explain what he believes is actually going on in the current prosecution: “When a system enters into crisis because it lacks a capacity for self-criticism and is unable to manage its internal conflicts, the choice of a sacrificial victim is the quickest solution to re-establish the lost equilibrium” he said.

He argued that the current case reflects just such internal conflicts, beginning with a complaint from an official of the Vatican bank that triggered a series of other accusations.

The bottom line, according to Intrieri, is that it violates both legal integrity and common sense to criminalize the actions of subordinates who simply thought they were carrying out the will of their superiors, however poorly they may have executed those wishes.

Today the court is scheduled to hear from attorneys representing Nicola Squillace, a lawyer who was brought in to advise the Vatican on the London investment and is now accused of embezzlement and fraud. Another attorney representing Tirabassi is scheduled to present his closing arguments on Dec. 6.