July 3, 2021
By Chico Harlan
ROME — The Vatican indicted 10 people Saturday, including an Italian cardinal, for financial crimes over a botched investment in London that allegedly squandered money intended “for the personal charity of the Holy Father.”
The announcement marked a major escalation in a long-simmering investigation into the Vatican’s investment in a luxury residential building in London. Among those who will stand trial later this month is Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who was once the third-highest-ranked figure in the Vatican and who helped oversee a substantial asset portfolio.
A Holy See spokesman said a special procedure, involving Pope Francis’s personal approval, was needed for the indictment of a cardinal. Becciu, who was removed from his position by the pontiff last year, faces charges including embezzlement and abuse of office.
The prospect of a cardinal facing a Vatican trial appears unprecedented in the modern history of the church, and is sure to amplify what had already been one of the Holy See’s largest financial scandals in decades.
The investment cost the church millions of euros — and reportedly helped enrich the middlemen. The Associated Press, citing court documents, had previously reported that the venture was approved by high-ranked individuals in the Secretariat of State, where Becciu had worked as a top deputy from 2011 until 2018.
A woman who worked with Becciu was also among those charged, as well as a businessman who helped broker the deal and a former head of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority, René Brülhart.
The charges facing the individuals range from fraud to money laundering to extortion. The trial will begin July 27, the Vatican said.
A lengthy account on the official Vatican News site, summarizing documentation from the prosecution, portrays Becciu as interfering in attempts to salvage the property deal even after he had moved on to a new position in the Vatican, as head of the department in charge of sainthood.
Becciu, the account said, also played a role in making sure that $200 million in papal charitable funds were invested instead in “reckless, speculative activity.”
Becciu issued a statement through his lawyer denying any wrongdoing and ascribing the charges to “obscure plots” against him.
Brülhart, in a statement sent to The Washington Post, said: “I have always carried out my functions and duties with correctness, loyalty and in the exclusive interest of the Holy See and its organs.” He called the Vatican’s latest steps a “procedural blunder.”
Francis has prioritized cleaning up the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances — a goal that past pontiffs had also talked about and struggled to tackle. But the London financial scandal has added to the pressure, highlighting what can happen in a secretive city-state when priests with little to no investment training handle enormous assets.
Among the steps already taken, Francis last year formally stripped the Secretariat of State of its financial holdings and ordered the department to transfer its holdings to another office. The Vatican has also fired several employees in connection with the London case. In October 2019, Vatican police raided the city-state’s Financial Information Authority and the Secretariat of State.
Last September, when Becciu renounced the rights of cardinal — one of the few times that has happened over a century — neither the Vatican nor Francis explicitly tied the move to the investment deal. A day after his firing, Becciu called a news conference and said he had been accused by the pope of embezzlement in a face-to-face conversation. But Becciu described the accusations as pertaining to a separate case involving donations to Becciu’s home diocese on the Italian island of Sardinia.
On Saturday, he said in a statement that he was the “victim of a machination against me.”
“Finally the moment of clarity is coming,” Becciu said, “and the tribunal will be able to assess the absolute falsehood of the allegations against me and the obscure plots that have clearly been supporting and feeding them.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.
Chico Harlan is The Washington Post’s Rome bureau chief. Previously, he was The Post’s East Asia bureau chief, covering the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan and a leadership change in North Korea. He has also been a member of The Post’s financial and national enterprise teams.