VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s sprawling financial trial may yet have produced no convictions or new firearms as prosecutors conduct a first round of questioning of the 10 suspects accused of stealing the Holy Seat of tens of millions of euros.
But the testimonies so far have provided plenty of insight into how the Vatican works, with a cast of characters worthy of a Dan Brown thriller or a Shakespearian tragicomedy. Recent hearings showed an ecclesiastical bureaucracy that used espionage, allowed outsiders with unverified credentials into the Apostolic Palace, and relied on a pervasive mantra to spare the pope accountability — until someone’s neck is at stake.
Here are some revelations so far in this unusual spread of the Vatican’s dirty laundry:
WHAT IS THE TRIAL?
The probe focused on the Secretary 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 over 200 million euros ($210 million). .
Prosecutors accused Italian brokers, the longtime Vatican fund manager and Vatican officials of defrauding the Holy See of tens of millions in fees and commissions and extorting 15 million euros (nearly of 16 million dollars) to finally take control of the London building.
Pope Francis wanted a trial to show his willingness to crack down on alleged financial irregularities. Three years later, however, the investigation has cast an unwanted spotlight on some of Francis’ own decisions and how Vatican monsignors handled a portfolio of assets worth 600 million euros (630 million euros). dollars) with little external oversight or expertise.
WHAT ABOUT TANGENTS?
The initial investigation spawned tangents, including one in which a once-powerful cardinal, Angelo Becciu, is accused of embezzlement for donating 125,000 euros ($130,000) in Vatican money to a Sardinian-run charity. by his brother.
Linked to him is another co-defendant, Cecilia Marogna, a security analyst who is accused of embezzling 575,000 euros (more than $600,000) that Becciu intended to pay to free a Colombian nun held hostage by militants. of al-Qaeda. They both deny wrongdoing, as do the other defendants.
SPIES, SPIES EVERYWHERE
Marogna’s story, detailed for the first time last week, is a remarkable tale that, if corroborated, would be a chapter in its own right in the rich history of Vatican diplomacy.
She and Becciu say she entered the Apostolic Palace based on an email she wrote to Becciu in 2015 about security concerns. Based on her understanding of geopolitics and her apparent ties to Italian intelligence, she became an adviser to Becciu, then No. 2 in the Secretariat of State.
According to his statement, Marogna has become 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 he turned to Marogna in 2017 after a Colombian nun was kidnapped in Mali, and Marogna suggested a British intelligence firm could help free her. Becciu testified that Francis had approved spending up to 1 million euros on the operation and insisted that it be kept secret even from the Vatican’s own intelligence chief.
History suggests that Becciu, with the Pope’s approval, created a parallel intelligence operation in the Vatican using an Italian freelancer.
This is not the only espionage case that raises questions about the Vatican’s status as a sovereign state: Becciu testified last week that Francis himself ordered the ousting of the Vatican’s first auditor general because that he had hired an outside firm to spy on the Vatican hierarchy, whom he suspected of wrongdoing.
In previous testimony, a Vatican official told prosecutors that Becciu’s replacement, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, brought members of the Italian secret service to the Holy See to sweep his office for bugs, bypassing again 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 main internal fund manager of the Secretariat of State, responsible for the Vatican’s equivalent of a sovereign wealth fund with assets estimated at 600 million. euros (about 630 million dollars).
It was Perlasca who recommended or advised against certain investments, and it was he who signed the contracts at the end of 2018 giving the Italian broker Gianluigi Torzi operational control of the London property. The basis of the extortion charge against Torzi is prosecutors’ allegation that he fired a quick shot at the Vatican to gain that control and only relinquished it after being paid 15 million euros ( nearly $16 million).
Perlasca was initially a prime suspect in the case. But after his first round of questioning in April 2020, Perlasca fired his attorney, changed his story and began cooperating with prosecutors.
Despite his involvement in all of the transactions under investigation, Perlasca escaped prosecution. The court last week let him participate in the lawsuit as an injured party, potentially allowing him to recover civil damages.
A few hours after the president of the court, Giupseppe Pignatone, recognized him as a civil party, Perlasca showed up in court unannounced, sat in the front row of the public gallery and declared “I don’t do not move”.
Prosecutor Alessandro Diddi immediately objected and Pignatone ordered him to leave, which he did.
SPARE THE POPE AT ALL COST
Many defendants testified that at key intersections, Francis was not only informed of the issues, but approved of them, including the crucial moment when the Vatican had to decide whether to try to sue Torzi for ownership of London or pay it. disabled.
Several witnesses and defendants said Francis wanted to “turn the page” and negotiate a settlement. Prosecutors say Francis was essentially duped by his own underlings.
But blaming the pope marks an unusual development, since Vatican culture generally seeks to spare the pope responsibility for anything that goes wrong.
Becciu explained this tradition during his testimony by invoking his Latin phrase “In odiosis non faceat nomen pontificis”, which basically means that the pope should not be dragged into unpleasant affairs.
Becciu responded to a question about why the pope only approves financial decisions orally, not in writing.
“I’m old school…where you try to protect the pope, to protect his moral authority without involving him too much in earthly affairs. That doesn’t mean not informing him, but not giving him responsibility for certain decisions,” he said.
Becciu stuck to that until Francis released him from papal secrecy so he could testify in his own defense. Becciu then revealed that Francis himself authorized the operation to free the Colombian nuns and ordered the resignation of the auditor general.
The week ended with the testimony of one of Perlasca’s assistants, Fabrizio Tirabassi, who explained how investment decisions were made and the origins of the London real estate operation. His lawyers said Tirabassi’s testimony proved there was no crime in the case.
“The only mystery in this story is why anyone wanted to have a trial on a matter that the hierarchs of the Holy See wanted to bring to an agreement,” the lawyers said.