A fraud and embezzlement trial over alleged mismanagement of the Holy See’s investments has started in Vatican City, with a once-powerful cardinal among the 10 defendants saying he remains “obedient” to Pope Francis, who stripped his privileges to bring him before the tribunal.
“He wanted me to be on trial, and I’m coming to the trial. I’m serene. I feel tranquil in my conscience,″ Cardinal Angelo Becciu, one of two defendants who attended the largely procedural, seven-hour session, told reporters afterwards.
Becciu, a former long-time Vatican diplomat, is charged with embezzlement and pressing a monsignor to recant information he gave to prosecutors about the handling of a disastrous deal involving properties in London.
The 73-year-old prelate, who was elevated to cardinal by Francis in 2018 but later dismissed by the Pope from his later post in charge of the church’s saint-making office, has denied any wrongdoing.
During the first day of the trial, held in a courtroom converted from a Vatican Museums hall, defence lawyers said they had not had time to digest about 28,000 pages of documents recently released by Vatican prosecutors.
Chief Judge Giuseppe Pignatone agreed, setting the next hearing for October 5. He is a former Rome chief prosecutor and spent decades investigating the Mafia in Sicily and criminal economic activity.
Not waiting for a verdict, Francis has already removed Becciu’s rights as a cardinal. The cardinal showed up in court wearing a plain black clergyman’s suit and a large cross hanging around his neck instead of the prestigious red garb reserved for the so-called “princes of the church”.
The defendants face prison sentences, fines or both if convicted.
Less than three months ago, it would have been impossible for a cardinal to be in the dock in Vatican City State, which has its own justice system and even a jail.
But Francis had a law changed so Vatican-based cardinals and bishops can be prosecuted and judged by the Holy See’s lay criminal tribunal as long as the pontiff signs off on it. Previously, Vatican cardinals could only be judged by their peers, a court of three fellow cardinals.
The defendants are alleged to have had various roles in actions that effectively cost the Holy See tens of millions of dollars in donations from rank-and-file Catholics. The losses came through poor investments, dealings with shady money managers and purported favours to friends and family.
Looming large in the indictment is the London deal approved by the Vatican secretariat of state. An initial 200 million euros was sunk into a fund operated by an Italian businessman.
Half the money went into the property venture in the Chelsea neighbourhood, an investment that eventually cost 350 million euros. By 2018, the original investment was losing money, and the Vatican scrambled to find an exit strategy.
Other defendants include Cecilia Marogna, who was hired by Becciu as an external security consultant. Prosecutors allege she embezzled 575,000 euros in Vatican funds that Becciu had authorised for use as ransom to free Catholic hostages abroad.
Marogna says that charges she ran up were reimbursement of her intelligence-related expenses and other money was her compensation.