Cardinals and ex-rivals spar over testimony in Vatican ‘Trial of the Century’

Crux [Denver CO]

May 7, 2022

By Elise Ann Allen

Australian Cardinal George Pell has accused Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who is currently on trial in a Vatican tribunal for alleged financial crimes, of providing “incomplete” information during his testimony and of thwarting efforts aimed at transparency.

In a May 6 statement, Pell accused Becciu of using his previous role as a top papal aide to block audits of the Vatican Secretariat of State’s finances and to intimidate, bully, and fire the auditors themselves.

Pell, 80, served as head of the Vatican Secretariat of the Economy, created in 2014 at the beginning of Pope Francis’s financial reform, until 2017, when he took leave from his duties to respond to allegations of historic sexual abuse of a minor in Australia.

An initial trial in August 2018 ended in a hung jury, but a retrial four months later found Pell guilty, and he spent over a year in prison while launching his appeals. His case went all the way to Australia’s High Court, which finally acquitted him in April 2020.

Since his release from prison, Pell has authored a series of books documenting his experience during the process, including his journals from prison. He is currently in Rome to tie up loose ends from his sudden departure in 2017 before returning to Australia.

His letter in response to Becciu came the day after Becciu took the stand in a trial with 10 defendants centered on a major real estate deal in London gone wrong, losing the Vatican around $200 million.

Becciu, who from 2011-2018 served as the sostituto, or substitute, of the Vatican Secretariat of State, making him a top papal aide akin to a chief of staff, oversaw the London deal at its inception and is accused of embezzlement and abuse of office.

He was stripped of his cardinal privileges and fired from his Vatican post as head of the department for saints’ causes by the pope in September 2020, due to allegations of embezzlement, and last summer, he became the first cardinal ever to be indicted by the Vatican’s court.

Becciu testified before the Vatican tribunal on May 5,  denying the charges against him by insisting, “All of the accusations are totally unfounded.”

RELATED: At Vatican trial, Cardinal Becciu returns to testify

The rivalry between Pell and Becciu dates back to nearly the beginning of Pope Francis’s papacy, when Pell was personally tapped by the pope to lead the Vatican’s financial reform.

Pell in his letter said Becciu in his testimony “gave a spirited defense of his blameless subordinate role in the Vatican finances,” but that the information provided was “incomplete.”

Becciu “did not explain the Secretariat of State’s rejection of the papally approved supervisory role of the new Council and Secretariat for the Economy” during his tenure as sostituto, Pell said, and pointed to the firing of auditing firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the ouster of the Vatican’s General Auditor, Libero Milone, as two unexplained actions for which Becciu was responsible.

After the creation of the Secretariat of the Economy and the Council of the Economy by Pope Francis in 2014, Pell, who was tasked with carrying out the pope’s financial reform, enlisted PwC to carry out an external audit of the Vatican’s finances, and in 2015, Italian financier Libero Milone was hired with great fanfare to what was then the new post of Auditor General.

However, in April 2016 the PcW audit was suspended by Becciu without any explanation, and in 2017 – just two years into a 5-year mandate – Milone was fired after being accused of spying on his superiors, which he has denied.

Shortly after his departure, Milone commented publicly on the incident, saying he was “intimidated” and forced to resign, and placed much of the blame on Becciu, saying, “I wanted to do good for the Church, to reform it like I was asked, but they wouldn’t let me.”

However, while Pell took a shot at Becciu’s record in the pursuit of financial transparency, he focused his letter on payments made to the Australian branch of Neustar, a technology company providing internet information and analytics which also offers global communications services and is an internet domain name registry for several top-level domains, such as .biz or .us.

Pell has often voiced public suspicion that Becciu had a hand in the allegations against him, and he’s suggested that money transfers from the Vatican to Australia made on Becciu’s watch were used as a payout to worsen his own legal trouble.

Becciu denied using the money to influence Pell’s legal proceedings. Yet Pell wrote in his statement said that while some of the payments are explained by contractual obligations and routine management, questions remain.

He specifically highlighted four payments made between 2017 and 2018, amounting to the $1.6 million that were authorized by Becciu, asking, “What was the purpose? Where did the money go after Neustar?”

“Let us see. Truth is the daughter of time,” he said.

Such public swapping of punches between Pell and Becciu has become a routine aspect of the ongoing trial in which Becciu is charged.

Last December, Becciu published an open letter to Pell accusing him of “offensive arguments,” “Public provocations” and “manifestly unfounded reconstructions.”

“More than anyone else, you know the pain of an unjust accusation and the sufferings that an innocent person – which I am, no less than you – has to endure during a trial,” Becciu wrote.