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The Vatican scandal has ended in long jail terms. But has the Pope kicked a hornet’s nest?

Cardinal Angelo Becciu has been sent to prison for embezzlement and a full clean-up may follow

Pope Francis prays with priests at the end of a limited public audience at the San Damaso courtyard in The Vatican in September 2020, during the Covid epidemic. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty

It could not have been more theatrical: a special tribunal set up in the same building as the Sistine Chapel, a chief judge who has spent a lifetime putting mafiosi behind bars and a Cardinal – himself once a papal contender – awaiting sentence for embezzlement.

In a cliff-hanger end to the so-called Vatican “trial of the century”, judges spent more than five hours deliberating behind closed doors over the weekend before announcing that the disgraced Cardinal, Angelo Becciu, would indeed see the inside of a Holy See prison cell, sentenced to five and a half years prison for embezzlement.

The Tribunal, under the leadership of court president Giuseppe Pignatone – a veteran of years investigating Sicilian mafia and Calabrian ‘ndrangheta bosses – took nearly half an hour to read the court’s decisions on nine other Vatican officials accused of an array of financial crimes, including abuse of office, fraud, and money laundering.

Cardinal Becciu’s conviction is an historic one as it represents the first time that lay judges have heard a case and delivered a judgment against a senior member of the Vatican curia.

The sentencing also represents the denouement of more than four years of investigations, requiring statements from 70 witnesses heard over some 86 court sessions, many of them focused on the labyrinthine acquisition of a former Harrod’s storeroom in Sloane Avenue on behalf of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, the Holy See’s administrative and diplomatic arm. 

The trial, given the Pope’s public blessing, was widely seen to have been an attempt by Francis to encourage unprecedented, official scrutiny of the historically muddy world of the Vatican bank and Holy See investments, reinvigorate stymied reforms of its financial dealings, and bring them under 21st-century accounting rules and oversight.

However veteran Vatican observers along with conservative critics of Pope Francis’ doctrinal and social reforms, argue that the proceedings served also to expose yet another, unexpected litany of embarrassments, including the continuing, ingrained culture of self-interest, inefficiency, blind loyalty and plotting and scheming within the highest echelons of the Roman curia.

Giovanni Maria Vian, a former editor of the Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano, described the Pope’s decision as akin to kicking a hornet’s nest.  However, a senior official close to the case told New European that the verdict could well be the catalyst to open the door for a full and “proper clean-up of the Vatican.”

They continued: “It is very important symbolically because this is the first time a lay court has issued a judgment on a cardinal in Vatican history. The Vatican promoter of justice himself has said that this is just one issue and that there are many other problems to address… hopefully, it is a sign that this is the start of proper clean-up.”

The trial also raised questions about the administration of the rule of law in the Vatican, the only independent city-state in Europe which continues to operate as an absolute monarchy thereby giving the Pope supreme legislative judicial and executive power. Defence teams throughout the trial have complained to judges that Francis’ behind-the-scenes intervention has seen him tweak laws several times, ostensibly to aid prosecutors.

And while defence attorneys were fulsome in their praise of court president Pignatone’s capacity for balance and fairness, allowing time and room to present arguments in full, they railed against the Vatican’s antiquated legal procedures and precedents which they argued offered prosecutors total freedom to pursue their investigations without impediment including the withholding of evidence as they saw fit.

Prosecutors had originally sought prison terms of between three and 13 years for the 10 accused along with damages of more than 400 million euros in a bid to recoup the 200 million lost by the Holy See in crooked deals. However, the tribunal acquitted several of the suspects of many of the more serious charges, including corruption and money laundering, concluding that those crimes could not be determined. 

Still, confiscation orders have been issued for payment of 166 million euros from nine of the 10 sentenced – only one was acquitted completely, Cardinal Becciu’s ex secretary, Monsignor Mauro Carlino. Judges also demanded payment of civil damages of 200 million euros on behalf of the Vatican.

Whether they will be paid remains to be seen: Cardinal Becciu’s lawyers, for one, have already signalled they intend to appeal. 

Cardinal Becciu, a serious papal contender and later, one of Pope Francis’ closest confidantes – first became involved in the controversial so-called Sloane Avenue affair in 2014 when he was Sostituto (deputy) in the Secretariat of State. 

The property deal hinged around a fund managed by a London-based, Italian financier, Raffaele Mincione who originally secured 45 per cent of the building at 60 Sloane Avenue on behalf of his Roman client. 

Four years later, Vatican officials began to question the efficacy of the investment and the property was passed on to another broker, Gianluigi Torzi, to see if it would be possible to buy the remaining 55 per cent of the building thereby pushing Mincione out of the deal.

However, Torzi had happily constructed his own, self-serving, financial package, refusing to finalise the acquisition and hand the building over to the Vatican without payment of a further 15 million euros to himself, described as extortion by investigators.

The embarrassed Vatican was finally forced to sell the building last year, losing nearly 140 million euros in the process amidst international opprobrium.

In the end, prosecutors charged all the brokers with financial crimes: Mincione was charged with embezzlement (and has already flagged an appeal) while Torzi was sentenced to six years in prison for extortion. (The fact that nobody appears to know where Torzi is at the moment is another story). Another Vatican official, Fabrizio Tirabassi, was also convicted of extortion and a money-laundering charge while a veteran Vatican financial adviser, Enrico Crasso was convicted of several charges including embezzlement and sentenced to seven years in prison. 

The former heads of the Vatican financial intelligence agency, Tommaso di Ruzza and Swiss lawyer and former Financial Information Authority head in the Holy See, Rene Brülhart, were absolved of the main charge of abuse of office but convicted and fined for failing to report a suspicious transaction involving Torzi.

Pope Francis sacked Cardinal Becciu in 2020 after prosecutors also accused him of siphoning funds and offering contracts to organisations and charities run by his brother on their native island of Sardinia.

While the Cardinal insisted to prosecutors that it was normal to deposit Vatican funds with individuals, including family members, for charitable uses, the trial also heard that police discovered forged delivery receipts for around 20 tonnes of bread in Sardinia. The bread had supposedly been earmarked for delivery to the poor, but it appeared not to exist and neither Cardinal Becciu’s brother nor the local priest involved in the charity agreed to answer questions nor appear in court. 

Becciu was also found to have hired a glamorous self-described security analyst, Cecilia Marogna, as part of a murky plan to gain funds, supposedly to help negotiate freedom for a nun kidnapped in Mali. 

Marogna, 46, also from Sardinia, was paid 575,000 euros by the Secretariat of State between 2018 and 2019, money paid into a company she had set up in Slovenia as well as a large cash payment. Italian police reported however that Marogna had spent most of the money on luxury handbags and clothes and visits to expensive health spas. She was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to three years and nine months in prison.

Cardinal Becciu and his defence team constructed much of their argument around the contention that Pope Francis knew about the London deal, including its convoluted broker deals, and had both supported and approved the acquisition. 

Becciu also insisted that Francis knew and approved of his arrangements with Cecilia Marogna to free the Columbian nun kidnapped in Mali in 2017 and the Tribunal heard that he even secretly taped a conversation of himself speaking with the Pope about the arrangement, ostensibly for later use a threat or blackmail. 

The Pope can be heard on tape being relatively sympathetic to his former confidante during the telephone call but in letters sent later in reply to Becciu’s call for help, he wrote icily that he “cannot comply with your request”.

A tribunal verdict on a separate lawsuit for unfair dismissal filed by the former Vatican auditor general, Libero Milone, and his late deputy, Ferruccio Panicco, has yet to be delivered.

Milone, the London-educated former chairman of the global accountancy firm, Deloitte worked closely with the late Australian Cardinal, George Pell, in his years leading Francis’ financial reforms and had uncovered mounting evidence of financial irregularities in the Vatican’s investment strategies. These included issues around the acquisition of the controversial London property which later led to the discovery of a plethora of investments and loans around the world that had been hidden from financial oversight and contravened Vatican regulations.

Milone and his late deputy, Ferruccio Panicco, were sacked suddenly in 2017 amidst mysterious circumstances and accused of spying. The two men launched a lawsuit for unfair dismissal last year and sought more than €9 million in damages for loss of earnings, reputational damage and Panicco’s terminal illness. Panicco’s lawyers argued that lifesaving treatment for cancer was delayed and severely disrupted when Vatican security officials seized his computer and documents containing his medical files and failed to return them. Panicco passed away earlier this year.

The two men’s lawyers have filed some 500 pages of documents with the court containing details of what they found in their earlier investigations. Judges are expected to deliver their verdict early in the new year.

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