ROME – This week the pope’s chief of staff, Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, became the first Vatican official to testify at a trial in a foreign court, offering a detailed overview at London’s High Court of Justice of the Holy See’s actions in the so-called “trial of the century.”

Peña Parra, substitute in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, was called on Thursday and Friday to testify on behalf of the Holy See in a British civil proceeding brought against the Vatican by Italian financier Raffaele Mincione, and he is scheduled to do so again July 8.

Mincione was among 10 individuals, including Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, convicted by a Vatican tribunal in July 2022 over a 350 million euro ($379 million) real estate deal in London gone sour. That verdict is currently on appeal before the Vatican’s Court of Appeals.

The now infamous “London deal” was originally the brainchild of Mincione and Becciu, who at the time held Peña Parra’s role as sostituto.

In 2013, Becciu suggested that the Vatican’s Secretariat of State invest in oil wells in Angola, where he had previously served as nuncio. At the time, a financial consultant working with the Secretariat of State, Enrico Crasso, who was also indicted by the Vatican and charged with various financial crimes, brought Mincione in to perform due diligence on the Angola proposal.

That investment eventually stalled, in part because of Mincione’s negative opinion. Instead, Mincione suggested the Vatican invest in a former warehouse of the famed Harrod’s department store, situated on the upscale Sloane Avenue in London.

To execute the acquisition, the Vatican’s money was invested into a fund managed by Mincione’s company, Athena Capital Fund, and was then used to purchase 45 percent of the shares.

However, by 2018, when Peña Parra took over Becciu’s position as sostituto, the property had lost a significant portion of the Vatican’s initial investment, and the Vatican found itself spending millions in mortgage payments and fees to its Italian business partners.

The Vatican eventually lost faith in Mincione and brought in another Italian broker, Gianluigi Torzi, to orchestrate an exit strategy. However, Torzi, who was also indicted and charged by the Vatican for financial crimes, was accused of hoodwinking the Vatican by obtaining a majority share in the property and then extorting the Vatican for roughly $16 million to cede control.

On June 16, 2020, Mincione filed a civil complaint at High Court of Justice in a bid to obtain declarations that he acted “in good faith” in his transactions with the Holy See. In response, the Vatican sent Peña Parra to testify, bringing with him some 80 pages of documentation prepared by lawyers engaged by the Secretariat of State in the process.

Peña Parra, who had previously referred to the London deal as a “fraud” and a “via crucis,” offered a detailed play-by-play during his testimony of the various meetings, WhatsApp messages and negotiations in late 2018, when the property changed hands from Mincione’s fund to a holding company controlled by Torzi.

An accompanying 80-page brief, prepared by lawyers Charles Hollander, Samar Abbas Kazmi, James Bradford and Jagoda Klimowicz on behalf of the Vatican Secretariat of State, pointed to the fact that the Vatican trial led Switzerland to freeze several of Mincione’s assets, as well as those of several other defendants.

It also noted that Mincione’s complaint was filed mere days after Torzi was arrested and detained overnight at the Vatican. He argued that Torzi, while officially acting as an agent of the Secretariat of State, was actually in criminal cahoots with Mincione to defraud the Vatican.

The London affair was “a sad story of corruption and abuse of office by disloyal officials and speculation by external actors emerged,” according to the memo, and lasted “the entire period from Mincione’s entry into the [Secretariat of State] in 2012 until after Gutt’s acquisition of the property.”

“The events that the Vatican Court dealt with concern corruption, fraud and embezzlement that have been deeply rooted for years,” it says, and acknowledged that many topics at issue in the Vatican’s criminal proceedings are not admissible as part of Mincione’s complaint but asked they be taken into account regardless.

Peña Parra noted that the bulk of the action on the London property had already been completed by the time he arrived to the Secretariat of State in 2018, and he instead highlighted the key role of his deputy, Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca.

Perlasca served as head of the administrative office that managed the Secretariat of State’s investments, and in that role, had overseen the proposal and approval of the original investment with Mincione in 2013. It was also Perlasca who signed the contracts giving Torzi control of the property five years later.

From the beginning of the Vatican trial to its conclusion last year, Perlasca was a curious figure, having originally been a key subject of interest for Vatican prosecutors before he agreed to turn on his colleagues, becoming a star witness in the process who was never prosecuted, despite the fact that his underlings and superiors were.

Perlasca, who apparently acted without authorization in signing the contracts with Torzi, at one point during the Vatican trial admitted that he had been coached by two other individuals, including Francesca Chaouqui, who was herself convicted by a Vatican court in 2016 for leaking confidential financial information to the press.

Since the Vatican trial concluded, Perlasca has resumed working as adjunct promoter of justice at the Vatican’s highest ecclesial court, the Apostolic Signatura.

Mincione’s lawyers objected that Perlasca was not made available to testify in the London trial, where he would have been subject to cross-examination.

Peña Parra told the court he only learned about the existence of the investment in the London property from Perlasca on Nov. 22, 2018, the same day that Perlasca had signed the contracts with Torzi without authorization.

“I had put trust in the officials of the administrative office, and I had never expected this kind of conduct. I felt betrayed,” Peña Parra said.

Peña Parra said that by December 2018, he realized the Holy See had essentially acquired an “empty box,” since Torzi had assumed control of the building, and was considering whether to sue Torzi or negotiate for control of the property. He said Pope Francis asked him “to keep two things in mind: Namely, that we should try to lose the least amount possible, and that we had to leave this business behind us and start over.”

With this in mind, he said that during a meeting with the pope on Dec. 26, 2018, “it was agreed” that the Vatican would purchase Torzi’s voting shares for control of the property, which ended up costing the Vatican 15 million Euro. Torzi was convicted by the Vatican of extortion in 2023.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen