ROME – Sometime this week, the Vatican’s “trial of the century,” pivoting on charges of embezzlement and other financial crimes against Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu and nine fellow defendants, should come to its long-awaited conclusion, after two and a half years and 85 separate hearings.
Giuseppe Pignatone, a veteran Italian jurist who presides over the three-judge panel hearing the case, has said that he wants to deliver verdicts by Saturday, though they could anytime after the prosecution, defense and attorneys representing civil parties to the case make their final presentations Tuesday.
In all, lead prosecutor Alessandro Diddi has requested 73 years and one month in prison for the ten defendants, including seven years and three months for Becciu. Civil parties to the case have also requested compensation totaling close to $700 million.
All ten defendants have denied any wrong-doing, and their attorneys have requested full exoneration. The indictments were first handed down in July 2021, and, in fits and starts, the trial has been underway ever since.
While it’s impossible to know what the court may decide, what is clear is that the defendants are hardly the only ones with something to gain or lose. As one veteran Italian journalist put it, the verdicts and their perceived legitimacy pose a key “stress test” for the entire Francis papacy.
At one level, the trial shapes up as a referendum on the Vatican clean-up operation launched by Pope Francis more than a decade ago.
If the perception is that the trial succeeded in exposing and punishing wrong-doing, it might go a long way to cementing the pope’s legacy as a reformer; should the take-away be instead that the trial has amounted to a lengthy and expensive exercise in scapegoating and shifting blame, on the other hand, it could fatally tarnish that legacy.
In addition, the trial has also raised structural questions about due process and the nature of papal power.
Early on, Francis issued four ad hoc rescripts, or legal decrees, granting prosecutor Alessandro Diddi broad investigatory powers without judicial review, in ways that some critics regard as having stacked the deck against the defense.
More basically, the trial has shone a spotlight on the pope’s authority, not as the spiritual head of the Catholic Church but as the temporal sovereign of the Vatican City State. Although modern pontiffs repeatedly have endorsed a separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary as a hallmark of sound democracy elsewhere, inside the Vatican itself the pope has essentially absolute power over both.
Some observers have suggested that the conduct of the trial may undercut the credibility of Catholic social teaching, by creating an impression that popes don’t practice what they preach.
The case pivots on a controversial $400 million land deal in London, which began in 2014 when the Vatican’s Secretariat of State first acquired an interest in a former Harrod’s warehouse in the posh neighborhood of Chelsea. After various twists and turns, the Vatican eventually sold the property for $224 million, resulting in a net loss of around $150 million.
(One financial commentator in the UK quipped along the way that the real mystery in the trial is how the Vatican managed to lose money on real estate in London, since typically property values, especially in Chelsea, go nowhere but up.)
Although the transactions involved in the London deal were approved by the most senior officials in the Secretariat of State, and in some cases, by Pope Francis himself, the prosecution charges that those approvals were obtained fraudulently by misrepresenting key aspects of the agreements.
When the London purchase was first approved, Becciu was the sostituto, or “substitute”, in the Secretariat of State, making him effectively the pope’s chief of staff. The other defendants are two Italian financiers involved in the deal, a former aide to Becciu, two former officials of the Vatican’s anti-money laundering watchdog, three former officials or advisors to the Secretariat of State, a lawyer representing one of the financiers, and a self-described security consultant tapped by Becciu to help with the liberation of a nun kidnapped by Islamic militants who allegedly used some of the ransom money to buy luxury goods for herself.
Beyond the London affair, Becciu is also facing charges on two other fronts: The transfer of roughly $240,000 to a Catholic charity in Sardinia run by his brother, and payouts of around $600,000 for the religious sister in Mali.
One anomaly the court will have to resolve is a name not on the list of those charged: Italian Monsingor Alberto Perlasca, former head of the office for financial administration in the Secretariat of State, who became the star witness for the prosecution.
During the course of testimony at trial, it emerged that Perlasca was coached in preparing his testimony by a longtime friend and confidante, Genoveffa Ciferri, who in turn had been assisted by Francesca Chaouqui, a former PR consultant and member of papal advisory body who was convicted in the second “Vatileaks” scandal in 2016 for passing confidential documents to journalists.
Chaouqui reportedly blamed Becciu for her downfall in the Vatican, creating the impression that she was manipulating Perlasca’s testimony for purposes of retribution.
To some extent, therefore, the verdicts later this week inevitably will reflect judgments not merely on the credibility of the defendants, but also the witnesses and prosecution.