Vatican City, Jul 3, 2021 / 11:50 am (CNA).
The Vatican’s court announced Saturday that it had indicted 10 individuals, including Cardinal Angelo Becciu, on charges including abuse of office, embezzlement, and fraud, and that a trial will begin July 27.
What is the story behind the trial? And what are the backgrounds of the 10 people who have been charged? Continue reading for CNA’s overview of the upcoming Vatican finance trial.
What is the trial about?
The trial is the result of a two-year investigation by Vatican prosecutors into allegations of financial malfeasance, mostly in connection with an investment made by the Secretariat of State in a London property.
According to prosecutors, during the Secretariat of State’s years-long purchase of the London building, people employed by the Vatican, or doing business with it, worked to defraud the city state for their own financial gain.
The prosecution has collected 500 pages of documentation and evidence it will present at trial. According to a summary by Vatican News, investigators claim the fraud involving the London property began when the building’s value was grossly overestimated in discussions with the Secretariat of State at 350 million pounds (around $483 million) — and the secretariat agreed to the purchase price.
Who are the defendants?
Defendants in the finance trial include two Italian businessmen, an investment manager, a lawyer — and the two Vatican employees who allegedly colluded with them.
Becciu, who was the second-ranking official at the Secretariat of State from 2011 to 2018, has also been indicted. In addition to facing charges of embezzlement, he is accused of attempting to mislead and interfere with the financial investigation.
A woman to whom Becciu paid more than $650,000 in secretariat funds for “security” work has also been charged, along with the former heads of the Vatican’s internal financial watchdog, who investigators say “overlooked the anomalies of the London transaction” despite having information about the purchase.
Four corporations are also included in the indictment.
But didn’t Vatican officials authorize the London property deal at every stage?
Vatican authorities, such as Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and sostituto Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, did sign off at various points in the deal, but they were deceived by others who presented them with false or partial information, prosecutors argue.
According to the Vatican News report, they say that Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, the secretariat official who signed the share purchase agreement, and his superiors, had not been “effectively informed to be fully aware of the juridical effects that the different categories of actions would cause.”
When did this get uncovered and why didn’t it happen sooner?
The Vatican investigation started in the summer of 2019, after the IOR (commonly called the “Vatican bank”) and the auditor general’s office presented allegations of serious crimes such as fraud, extortion, embezzlement, corruption, aiding and abetting, and blackmail in the Secretariat of State.
The auditor general noticed that 77% of the Secretariat of State’s portfolio was concentrated in the Swiss investment bank Credit Suisse and that donated funds earmarked for charity, or to support the work of the Roman Curia, may have been invested in “high-risk financial activity.”
Despite Pope Francis’ financial reforms, at the time investigations began, the Secretariat of State had control over large sums of money, including money intended for investment, with little outside oversight.
When investigations uncovered probable malfeasance, Pope Francis ordered that responsibility for investments should be taken away from the Secretariat of State.
In its report on the Vatican, published in June after an October 2020 on-site inspection, the financial watchdog Moneyval noted that there was still a significant level of risk for abuse of office for personal benefit and money laundering by mid- and senior-level Vatican figures.
It added that cases such as the London property deal had “raised a red flag for potential abuse” of the Holy See and Vatican City State’s systems by personnel.
Moneyval said that, though positive actions had been taken since 2014, they were not addressed with the General Risk Assessment, “which raises some concerns as to the degree to which these matters are formally recognized and acknowledged by all authorities.”
The Moneyval Report also pointed out the Vatican’s weak record on convictions for financial crimes, and suggested that sanctions had not been “proportionate and dissuasive.”
The Vatican’s prosecuting judges claim that two of the defendants in this month’s trial, René Brülhart and Tommaso Di Ruzza, should have noticed some problems sooner in their former capacities as president and director of AIF (the Financial Information Authority, now called the ASIF.)
The main prosecutor, the documents say, “believes that AIF’s behavior in the persons of its director and president seriously violated the basic rules governing supervision.” The prosecutor argues that AIF would have known that a payment made to businessman Gianluigi Torzi, a sum allegedly received through extortion, was not legitimate.
How have the accused responded?
In a statement made through his lawyer July 3, Becciu said that he is innocent of the charges brought against him and is a victim of “machinations” and media derision.
The trial will be “the moment for clarification,” he said, adding that he believed that the court would uncover “the absolute falsity of the accusations against me and the dark plots that evidently supported and fed them.”
René Brülhart, former president of the AIF, issued his own statement July 3, stating his confidence that the trial would show “the truth about my innocence.”
“I have always carried out my functions and duties with correctness, loyalty and in the exclusive interest of the Holy See and its organs,” he said. “I face this matter with serenity in the conviction that the accusations against me will fully disappear.”
Brülhart also said that he had not yet received a formal notification from Vatican judges about his indictment, adding that “this matter constitutes a procedural blunder that will be immediately clarified by the organs of Vatican justice as soon as the defense will be able to exercise its rights.”
Msgr. Mauro Carlino, who worked in the Secretariat of State and is charged with extortion and abuse of office, issued a statement through his lawyers July 3, asserting his “profound ethical integrity” and the “groundlessness” of the accusations against him.
The lawyer said that Carlino was “surprised and regrets” that Vatican investigators consider his actions, “carried out in the exclusive interest of the Vatican Secretary of State and on instruction of his Superiors,” to be criminal.
It was noted that Carlino “has always given loyal and dutiful obedience” to his superiors, and that in the case of the London property, he intervened only because he was instructed to, in order to save the Secretariat five million euros ($5.9 million) off of the 20 million euros ($23.7 million) that Gianluigi Torzi was allegedly attempting to extort.
“It seems at least incomprehensible that a meritorious activity, already ascertained in its factual terms, which did not involve any personal advantage for Msgr. Carlino and, on the contrary, determined a significant economic saving for the Secretariat of State, could have given rise to a request for subpoena,” the statement said, noting the brief time to prepare a defense for an investigation which took two years, had extensive media coverage, and involved acts in foreign jurisdictions.