Vatican airs dirty laundry in trial over London property
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s sprawling financial trial may not have produced any convictions yet or any new smoking guns as prosecutors work through a first round of questioning of the 10 suspects accused of fleecing the Holy See of tens of millions of euros. But testimony has provided many insights into the Vatican’s operations, with a cast worthy of a Dan Brown thriller. Recent hearings revealed a church bureaucracy using espionage to allow outsiders with undocumented qualifications to gain access the Apostolic Palace. They also relied on a pervasive mantra that spared the pope responsibility — until someone was on the line.
These are some of the revelations from this unusual airing about the Vatican’s dirty laundry.
WHAT IS THE TRIAL?
The investigation was borne of the secretariat of state’s 350 million-euro ($370 million) investment in a London property, which was such a debacle that the Vatican sold the building this year at a cumulative loss of more than 200 million euros ($210 million).
Prosecutors have accused Italian brokers, the Vatican’s longtime money manager and Vatican officials of swindling the Holy See out of tens of millions in fees and commissions and of extorting it of 15 million euros (nearly $16 million) to finally get control of the London building. Pope Francis requested a trial to demonstrate his willingness to take action against financial fraud. Three years on, though, the investigation has cast an unwelcome spotlight on some of Francis’ own decisions and how Vatican monsignors managed a 600 million-euro ($630 million) asset portfolio with little external oversight or expertise.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE TANGENTS?
The original investigation has spawned tangents, including one in which a once-powerful cardinal, Angelo Becciu, is accused of embezzlement for having donated 125,000 euros ($130,000) in Vatican money to a Sardinian charity run by his brother.
Linked to him is another codefendant, Cecilia Marogna, a security analyst who is accused of embezzling 575,000 euros (over $600,000) that Becciu had intended as payment to liberate a Colombian nun held hostage by al-Qaida militants. Both of them deny wrongdoing as do the other defendants.
SPIES, SPIES EVERYWHERE
Marogna’s story, detailed for the first time last week, is a remarkable tale which, if corroborated, would be a chapter of its own in the storied history of Vatican diplomacy.
She and Becciu say she gained entry in the Apostolic Palace on the basis of an email she wrote Becciu in 2015 about security concerns. Because of her knowledge of geopolitics, and connections to Italian intelligence, she was made an adviser to Becciu (then the No.
According to her statement, Marogna became a conduit to Becciu for everything from Russian emissaries seeking the return of holy relics to efforts by Catalonia’s separatist leader to establish a channel of communication with the Vatican.
Becciu testified that he turned to Marogna in 2017 after a Colombian nun was kidnapped in Mali, and Marogna suggested that a British intelligence firm could help liberate her. Becciu testified that Francis approved spending as much as 1 million euros on the operation, and that it should be kept secret from even the Vatican’s intelligence chief. The tale suggests that Becciu created a parallel Vatican intelligence operation with an Italian freelancer with the approval of the pope. It’s not the only case of espionage that raises questions about the Vatican’s status as a sovereign country. Last week, Becciu testified that Francis ordered the removal of the Vatican’s first auditor General because he had hired an outside firm to spy on the Vatican hierarchy. In previous testimony, a Vatican official stated that Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra had brought members from the Italian secret service into Holy See to sweep his office for bugs. This again bypassed the Vatican’s own Gendarmes.
MONSIGNOR PERLASCA MAKES A CAMEO APPEARANCE
No figure in the trial is as intriguing as Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, who was the chief internal money manager in the secretariat of state, responsible for the Vatican’s equivalent of a sovereign wealth fund with estimated assets of 600 million euros (around $630 million).
It was Perlasca who recommended certain investments or advised against them, and it was he who signed the contracts in late 2018 giving Italian broker Gianluigi Torzi operative control of the London property. The basis for the extortion charge against Torzi is prosecutors’ allegation that he pulled a fast one on the Vatican to gain that control and only relinquished it after getting paid 15 million euros (nearly $16 million).
Perlasca was at first a prime suspect in the case. But after his first round of questioning in April 2020, Perlasca fired his lawyer, changed his story and began cooperating with prosecutors.
Despite his involvement in all of the under investigation deals, Perlasca was not indicted.
Perlasca was allowed to join the trial as an injured person last week, which could allow him to recover civil damages.
Hours after tribunal president Giupseppe Pignatone admitted him as a civil party, Perlasca showed up at the tribunal unannounced, sat in the front row of the public gallery and declared “I’m not moving.”
Prosecutor Alessandro Diddi immediately objected and Pignatone ordered him to leave, which he did.
SPARE THE POPE AT ALL COSTS
Many of the defendants have testified that, at key junctions, Francis wasn’t only informed of the issues but approved them, including the crucial moment in which the Vatican had to decide whether to try to sue Torzi to get the London property or pay him off. Several witnesses and defendants claim that Francis wanted to “turn a page” and make a deal. Prosecutors claim that Francis was essentially tricked by his underlings and they obtained secret executive decrees from Francis giving them the right to investigate in ways that the defense claims violated the suspects’ basic human rights and legal guarantees.
But, blaming Francis is an unusual development. The Vatican culture tends to avoid putting the pope under any responsibility for anything that goes wrong.
Becciu explained the tradition in his testimony by citing the Latin phrase “In Odiosis Non Faceat nomen Pontificis”, which roughly means that the pope shouldn’t be involved in unpleasant matters.
Becciu answered a question about why the pope approves financial decisions only orally and not in writing.
“I come from the old school… where you try and protect the pope, preserve his moral authority, without involving him in too many earthly matters. He said that while he did not deny him information, he did not give him responsibility for certain decisions.
Becciu remained silent until Francis freed him from the secret of the Pontifical Council so that he could defend himself. Becciu revealed that Francis had authorized the liberation of the Colombian nuns and had also ordered the resignations of the auditor general.
The week ended with Fabrizio Tirabassi’s testimony. He explained how investment decisions were made as well as the origins of the London property sale. His lawyers stated that Tirabassi’s testimony proved there was no crime in this deal.
” The only mystery in this story is why someone would want to have a trial over an issue that the hierarchs from the Holy See wanted for a settlement,” the lawyers stated.
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