VATICAN CITY (VATICAN CITY)
The Pillar [Washington DC]
July 26, 2023
By Ed. Condon
The Vatican City’s promoter of justice asked judges Wednesday to sentence Cardinal Angelo Becciu to more than 7 years in prison, as he made closing arguments in the landmark financial crimes trial.
But do prosecutors really have a case against Becciu?
In his argument July 26, Alessandro Diddi spent the day focused on Becciu, the former sostituto of the secretariat, whose defense Diddi described as “masterpieces of falsification and mystification of reality.”
The cardinal, in turn, has declared his “absolute innocence” and himself to be “a faithful servant of the Church” who has “suffered in silence” throughout a process he’s called a witch hunt and media smear campaign.
Away from the courtroom hyperbole, though, there is perhaps one thing on which Becciu and Diddi would agree: The case is complicated.
According to the official charge sheet, he is accused of embezzlement and abuse of office, conspiracy, as well as the subornation of witnesses. But how does this break down, and does the evidence add up?
All roads lead through London
According to most media coverage of the trial, the primary focus of the evidence and the charges — including against Cardinal Becciu — is the Secretariat of State’s now-infamous purchase of a London building at 60 Sloane Avenue.
But that story, however popular, isn’t quite right.
The London deal may be at the center of the trial, but the charges, accusations, and evidence extend back years before the deal was concluded, and well into the months after.
And it was the complicated structuring of the purchase which led to charges of extortion and other crimes for defendants, most notably the businessman Gianluigi Torzi.
But Cardinal Becciu has insisted that he had nothing to do with the purchase of the London building, and that the deal was done after he had left the Secretariat of State in June of 2018 and it was managed by his successor as sostituto, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra.
In that, Becciu has a point. He did not, so far as the available evidence shows, have anything to do with the decision to buy the building outright, or with approving the details which left the Vatican wide open to (alleged) fraud and extortion.
Still, that is only part of the story.
The purchase of the building — which lost the Vatican more than 100 million euros — was part of a hasty settlement as the secretariat severed ties with the financier Raffaele Mincione, with whom it had invested some 200 million euros in 2014.
That initial investment was approved by Becciu, as was its financing, and the unusual way it was recorded on Vatican balance sheets. And those actions are part of the prosecution case — though the cardinal has insisted he cannot remember much of what he approved, or explain his reasons, even when presented with documents bearing his signature.
And as has been reported since before the trial began, when the newly created Secretariat for the Economy and Office of the Auditor General tried to look through the Secretariat of State’s books for a curia-wide audit in 2015-16, it was Becciu who led the resistance to scrutiny.
According to reporting at the time — and later confirmed both by Cardinal George Pell, the first prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, and Libero Milone, the first auditor general — the secretariat under Becciu’s leadership used forbidden accounting practices to effectively hide the whole 200 million euro investment with Mincione from auditors, along with the bank loans used to finance the investment.
Becciu has made several evolving claims in his own defense since. He has said, at different times, that he never refused to cooperate with Pell and Milone; that Pell and Milone’s departments never had the authority to audit the Secretariat of State anyway; and that he did act to shield the specific investments from scrutiny because they were some kind of secret discretionary papal fund outside of Vatican financial laws.
In addition to Pell (who died earlier this year) and Milone’s insistence that none of these defenses are true, the plain text of the statutes of both their former departments — issued by Pope Francis — seems clearly to give them total access to and oversight of all Vatican departments and funds, with no exceptions.
While much of the media attention on the trial has focused on the purchase of the London building, just as significant is the reason why the Secretariat of State was so eager to sever ties with Mincione, forfeiting millions and getting the building (saddled with a mountain of debt) in the process.
After Becciu left the department in 2018 and was replaced, Peña Parra said he reviewed the investment and decided the Secretariat of State needed to get out, and quickly.
This decision was likely informed by the fact that Mincione used Vatican funds to invest in his other businesses and projects, and to give his businesses no-penalty loans, while at the same time charging the Vatican millions of euros in performance and management fees.
He also invested Vatican money in debt products marketed by businessman Gianluigi Torzi, including in a bond involving a company with mafia links, and in two Catholic hospitals under Italian fraud investigations.
Those investments, and the process of Becciu approving them came under scrutiny as the investigation into purchase of the London building got under way. And while Becciu might reasonably claim he wasn’t responsible for the Vatican’s separation from Mincione, he was responsible for getting the Secretariat of State involved with Mincione in the first place.
More to the point, according to prosecutors, as the investigation got underway, Becciu acted to shut it down — most notably by fronting an offer in 2020 from a consortium of shadowy businessmen to buy the London building back, apparently with the hope that might make the whole problem go away.
Becciu did this while supposedly having nothing to do with Vatican investments, or the workings of his former department, which he had left years previously.
Referring to Becciu’s offer to have the building bought back, Pope Francis wrote to Becciu in 2021 saying “I recall that this proposal immediately struck me as strange in terms of content, the forms and times chosen.”
“I must also add,” Francis wrote, “that my original perplexity was further strengthened when I understood that the initiative in question was, among other things, aimed at interfering, with impeding effects, with the investigations of the Office of the Promoter of Justice.”
While Becciu has, most court watchers would probably agree, acquitted himself of responsibility for the London property deal itself, what he did before and after the building was bought will give the judges plenty to consider.
Away from matters of high finance, Cardinal Becciu is also facing charges that he misappropriated hundreds of thousands of euros in Church funds and handed them over to members of his family.
A key transaction is 250,000 euros sent by Becciu to bank accounts controlled by his brother, Antonio Becciu, who runs the Spes Cooperative, a Catholic charity in Sardinia.
The cardinal has said during the trial that he authorized an initial 100,000 euro loan, later converted to a 50,000 euro donation from the Italian bishops’ conference, because he was “excited” by his brother’s charitable work which, he said, made him “blush, as a priest.”
Asked about two more payments, one of which was made from a Secretariat of State account, which went into his brother’s personal bank account and totaled 130,000 euros, Becciu has insisted that it is ordinary practice for Vatican funds to be deposited with individuals, including family members, for charitable purposes.
Both Vatican and Italian prosecutors question how charitable the Becciu brothers’ purposes were, however.
In November last year, Vatican prosecutors told the court that their Italian counterparts had found the forged receipts among nearly 1,000 pages of paperwork they examined.
When the paperwork for the supposed deliveries was produced, no one could recognize the signatures on the documents, prosecutors said, and Italian financial police concluded that invoices were created just weeks before police searches, and were fabricated to cover supposed deliveries dating back to 2018, for which no other records exist.
Both Cardinal Becciu’s brother Antonio and the local director of Caritas, Fr. Mario Curzu, are under investigation by Italian authorities in Sardinia as part of their enquiry into the matter. Both have refused to appear during the Vatican trial, despite repeated summons.
Sources close to the prosecution have previously told The Pillar that the priest and Becciu’s brother refused to appear in court because they were concerned they would face the choice either to implicate themselves in criminal activity or make false statements, which could have been used against them by Italian prosecutors.
One of the strangest aspects of the prosecution’s case against Cardinal Becciu concerns the cardinal’s relationship with Cecilia Marogna, a self-styled geopolitical analyst and private intelligence agent.
Marogna and Becciu are both charged with embezzlement, over the more than half a million euros he had the Secretariat of State pay her via her shell company in Slovenia.
Becciu has insisted that the payments to Marogna were part of a super-secret, papally approved operation to negotiate the release of a religious sister kidnapped in Mali in 2017.
But there are a few problems with that narrative.
Financial records also show that the money sent to Marogna by Becciu was spent on designer label goods, luxury travel, and five-star resorts.
Also a problem for Becciu is that text messages produced by the prosecution show he was still authorizing payments to her long after he left the Secretariat of State, which somewhat argues against her employment being part of an official-but-secret operation within the department.
Margona herself has also stated publicly that, in addition to supposedly working on “sensitive diplomatic cases” for Becciu, she also operated as a kind of personal spy for the cardinal, compiling at his instruction dossiers on the private moral failings of other senior Church officials.
While Becciu has insisted that his payments to Marogna were all sanctioned and official, his former deputy at the Secretariat of State, Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, told investigators that he was frequently ordered by Becciu to transfer large sums, or hand over tens of thousands of euros in cash for payment to Marogna.
On one occasion, Perlasca said, he was told to prepare a pay envelope with nearly 15,000 euros in cash for the cardinal, but that he did not know for whom the money was intended — only that Becciu told him a payment had been approved by Pope Francis personally.
Perlasca also told prosecutors that, after he first discussed the Marogna payments with investigators in 2019, he reported back to Becciu about what was discussed, concerned that the cardinal may have been defrauded by the woman.
“But when I went to see him he said ‘No! I know her very well,’” Perlasca said.
Perlasca also said that Becciu “became very angry with me,” for discussing the money transfers with investigators and upbraided him for not covering up the payments.
“He asked me ‘Why didn’t you eliminate the transfers [from secretariat records]?’ I said ‘Why should I have eliminated them if they were ordered by His Holiness?’”
Despite Becciu’s repeated insistence that there was nothing irregular about his authorization of secret payments to Marogna (both during and after his term as sostituto), the transfers, totalling 575,000 euros, were flagged by Interpol, alerting Vatican City national police.
The pope’s good servant?
Throughout the investigation and trial, Cardinal Becciu has repeatedly claimed to be a loyal servant of the pope who would never, indeed couldn’t possibly, commit a breach of trust with Francis, let alone a crime.
Earlier this week, Becciu insisted in court that “I reject with indignation and disgust the insinuating and offensive sentences about my priestly life and as a servant of the pope. A man who prides himself on working on behalf of the pope cannot fall into such baseness.”
But, in addition to his financial dealings, the judges will also have to consider the cardinal’s claims of Pope Francis’ supposedly close and personal approval for his actions.
Becciu started the trial by insisting he couldn’t answer questions about his alleged crimes, especially his work with Marogna, because it was part of a confidential initiative approved by Francis personally and covered by state secrecy.
As Becciu continued to argue in court for two years now, that his payments to Marogna were personally sanctioned by Francis, the pope released publicly an exchange of letters with the cardinal from 2021, which were written shortly before Becciu was charged by prosecutors.
Francis flatly refused, and denied having any knowledge of, or giving any approval for actions which, he told the cardinal, “as you well know, are characterized by extemporaneous and incautious assignments of financial resources diverted from the typical purposes and intended… to satisfy personal voluptuous inclinations.”
Becciu responded, in writing, by threatening to call Francis as a witness if he was put on trial and demanding the pope sign a statement excusing him from criminal prosecution.
“Evidently and surprisingly, I was misunderstood by you,” Francis responded. “Therefore, I regret to inform you [again] that I cannot comply with your request.”
This terse answer from the pope notwithstanding, Becciu has continued throughout the trial to implicate the pope in his actions.
The recording was discovered by Italian financial police on a mobile phone belonging to Becciu’s niece, which was seized during a series of searches conducted at the Vatican’s request on the cardinal’s home island of Sardinia in connection with the alleged embezzlement of funds to his family there.
In the July 24, 2021, phone call, Becciu can be heard trying unsuccessfully to get Francis to agree he had approved the cardinal’s dealings with Margona. Becciu can also be heard asserting that the whole matter was a state secret and couldn’t be disclosed to anyone — despite his having his niece listen in and record the call without Francis’ knowledge, which is itself, technically, a crime.
Shortly after his election in 2013, Francis issued a change to Vatican City law in the wake of the so-called Vatileaks scandal involving the former papal butler to Benedict XVI. The new law made the disclosure of “information and documents concerning the fundamental interests or diplomatic relations of the Holy See or of the State” punishable by up to 8 years in prison.
With the prosecution set to finish their final arguments on July 27, the court will head into recess for August. When the trial resumes in the autumn, Becciu’s lawyers will get their turn to answer the evidence in a systematic and — they hope — convincing way.
While they may yet produce arguments to sway the judges, they will have to do better than the cardinal’s own blanket assertions of innocence.
However often Becciu might claim the prosecution’s case is detached from the evidence, and from reality, he still has a case to answer.