Peña Parra and the rule of law: Has anything changed in the Vatican?

The Pillar [Washington DC]

March 21, 2023

By Ed. Condon

Will Archbishop Peña Parra face a formal complaint in the Vatican?

One of the highest-ranking officials in the Holy See — the effective papal chief of staff no less — told a Vatican courtroom Friday that he had asked for extra-legal surveillance of the director general of the IOR, the Vatican’s canonically-established banking operation.

It was a striking admission by Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the sostituto at the Secretariat of State.

More striking was the archbishop’s instance that he would “do it again” if he thought it necessary.

Hearing Peña Parra speak on March 17, some might be left to assume that Vatican City is structured as a kind of casual surveillance state, or that if the archbishop’s actions seemed jarring, they are really only the ordinary idiosyncrasies of religious monarchy in a microstate.

But as a simple legal matter, electronic surveillance of the kind Peña Parra ordered is tightly controlled, inside and outside the Vatican’s borders, and requires a signed judicial warrant.

In fact, amid the investigation which led to the Vatican’s current criminal trial, Pope Francis had to personally and physically sign off on the use of similar measures aimed at gathering evidence on officials in Peña Parra’s own Vatican department.

In that light, both the archbishop’s actions and attitude raise serious questions about the rule of law in the Vatican, and what — if anything — has changed in the way the Secretariat of State operates in the wake of recent scandals.

Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra told the Vatican financial crimes trial last week that, in 2019, he “informally” asked the head of the Vatican gendarmerie  to put the IOR director general Gianfranco Mammì under electronic “monitoring” — despite having no legal authority to do so, and without a warrant.

The archbishop explained he was surprised by the bank rejecting his demand for a loan of 150 million euros and so concluded its director might be secretly colluding with Gianluigi Torzi, the man accused of extorting the secretariat for millions.

It was a curious conclusion to draw, given that it was Mammì and his colleague, IOR president Jean Baptiste de Franssu, who flagged Torzi’s participation in the London property deal in the first place when they rejected the loan application (and caused the current trial at which Peña Parra appeared as a witness).

Invoking concerns about Torzi was an even more curious rationale by the sostituto, given that it was his own department, on his watch, that appointed Torzi to act as their broker for the deal.

But it is Peña Parra’s insistence that he would do it all again, if he thought he needed to, which will likely ring loudest in the ears of officials around Vatican City. Legal formalities be damned, the archbishop seemed to be saying, if the sostituto thinks it’s necessary it cannot be illegal.

Hearing the sostituto advance a kind of Nixonian rationale for co-opting the machinery of Vatican law enforcement may strike many as especially ironic, given place and time.

Peña Parra was speaking at the trial of his predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who is himself charged with abusing his office. And his statements came as his own department is embroiled in a messy lawsuit with the Vatican’s former auditor general, Libero Milone, who claims he was forced from his role by the extra-legal actions of Becciu and Domenico Gianni, the same former head of the the Vatican gendarmes Peña Parra tasked with spying on Mammì.

The investigation and trial of Becciu and nine other former officials and advisors at the Secretariat of State has been a running source of scandal and embarrassment for the Vatican, ever since word of their alleged crimes first made the news in 2019.

Since then, there has been a near wholesale turnover among senior leadership at the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s police force, and the Holy See’s financial watchdog. Peña Parra, who followed Becciu into office in 2018, has largely escaped scrutiny and been seen as the unlucky man drafted in to clean up an expensive mess.

But now, having seemingly confessed to abusing the power of his office while invoking practically the same justification by self-defined necessity often used by Becciu, many will be wondering if a page really has been turned after years of scandal, investigation, and legal proceedings.

A key driver of the long and painful trial currently underway has been, most Vatican watchers agree, the pressing need for the Holy See to show it takes reform and accountability seriously. The need to impress international watchdogs like Moneyval and encourage Catholics around the world to replenish the Vatican’s coffers is real and urgent.

Neither group is likely to be impressed if, despite reams of papal legislation, dozens of arrests and resignations, and months of courtroom drama, the attitude of Vatican officials still seems to be that the rule of law is optional.

Of course, it is by no means certain that Peña Parra’s outburst will have immediate consequences. While the plain text of what the archbishop said would seem to merit some response, even the notoriously pugnacious Vatican promoter of justice, Alessandro Diddi, might balk at the prospect of prosecuting two sostituto’s at the same time.

But, on the other hand, any next step would seem to be up to Mammì and the other leaders at the IOR — an institution which has probably the strongest reputation of any Vatican financial institution, and one to which Pope Francis has deferred in times of crisis.

It was Mammì and de Franssu whom Francis sided with in 2019, singing off on the investigation which led to the current trial, even though it meant losing a close confidant in Cardinal Becciu. And as recently as last year, Francis reversed a key plank of his own financial reforms in favor of the bank — taking away the management of most curial assets from APSA, the Vatican’s official inhouse manager and giving it to the IOR.

Should Mammì decide to file a formal complaint against Peña Parra, it’s not obvious on what grounds it could be ignored. As the ongoing investigation of Milone has appeared to show, Vatican prosecutors seem happy to look into lesser alleged crimes on less evidence.

If the IOR does decide to file another complaint against the Secretariat of State, prosecutors, Pope Francis, and the entire rest of the senior curial leadership may be left to decide how serious the whole accountability and reform project really is.

Another trial for a top official for abusing his office might leave the Vatican seeming to court the public image of banana republic, without meaningful commitment to the rule of law. But if there is not action, the criticism will be that reform of lawbreaking in the Vatican has become a project best left to the future.