Cardinal found guilty of embezzlement in Vatican ‘trial of the century’

Italian Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu attends a Vatican consistory for the creation of new Cardinals on Aug. 27, 2022 at St. Peter’s Basilica.

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Inside the high walls of the Holy See, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu — former head of the office of “miracles” that minted saints — was considered papabile, a possible next pope.

Then his career collided with church prosecutors, who charged the 75-year-old Italian and nine other officials with corruption, setting up the Vatican’s trial of the century.

On Saturday, Becciu — the first cardinal tried by the Vatican’s little-known criminal court — was found guilty of several counts of embezzlement after a trial of marred by allegations of witness tampering and papal interference. Becciu was sentenced to five years and six months in a verdict read out in a converted quarter of the museum that houses the Sistine Chapel.

Becciu’s lawyers said the decision would be appealed, but it put the cardinal closer to one of Vatican City’s handful of jail cells — a result that amounts to both a sign of accountability and embarrassment for an institution that has long struggled to root out corruption. He was also barred from holding any Vatican office.

The case, a marathon of 86 courtroom hearings that mixed a hodgepodge of various charges, further exposed the murky world of Vatican finances, as well as the pope’s crusade for accountability, even, critics argued, at the cost of the rule of law. The star defendant was always Becciu, once a papal confident who renounced his senior post after a surprise 2020 meeting in which Pope Francis dramatically confronted him with the accusations against him. Francis stripped him of his privileges as cardinal before any finding of guilt. Later, some of those rights were unofficially reinstated.

The Vatican, meanwhile, emerges worse for wear, with new questions raised about the effectiveness and fairness of its legal system. Portrayed as an exercise in transparency under a crusading pope, the case nevertheless appeared to backfire in key ways, opening an unwanted window into the intrigue, infighting and ineptitude at heart of the world’s smallest sovereign state.

“The pope ended up kicking a hornets’ nest,” said Giovanni Maria Vian, a former editor of the Vatican newspaper.

A bad Vatican investment in a tony London property that ultimately led to massive losses prompted the sweeping investigation, including unprecedented raids of Vatican offices. As prosecutors dug, they claimed Becciu had wrongly funneled 125,000 euros to a Sardinian charity run by his brother and another 575,000 euros to Cecilia Marogna, a Sardinian woman with a humanitarian organization in Slovenia who, Becciu said, was supposed to help free a kidnapped nun. Other senior Vatican officials who signed off on the London deal were never indicted, and the pope had been previously apprised of the transaction.

Before the trial began, Francis appeared to use his powers in ways that supporters saw as a quest for transparency, but critics called overreach by a man who serves as Vatican City’s absolute monarch. He approved a series of secret edicts aimed at empowering prosecutors, including one allowing investigators to engage in wiretapping.

Pope Francis makes the sign of the cross during the weekly general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday.

As prosecutors sought to prove their case, they were plagued by setbacks, including questions about the credibility of their star witness and revelations that he had been coached by a Becciu enemy.

The trial came as a pope elected with a mandate to reform the Roman Curia — the opaque bureaucracy that runs Vatican City — was seen as having made strides, if still not enough, to improve financial transparency. The Vatican bank — long tainted by secretive accounting and money laundering scandals — underwent a cleanup during the past decade, a process begun under Pope Benedict XVI and accelerated under Francis.

Francis has also banned gifts to Vatican employees worth more than $50, and forced Holy See officials to sign a pledge that they have no assets in tax havens.

The Becciu case “says a lot about the pope’s will — theatrical and spectacular — to clean house,” said Emiliano Fittipaldi, an Italian journalist and noted Vatican watcher. He added, “Becciu became a sort of symbol, or a scapegoat, even if he didn’t commit any crime, of a system that had to be dealt with at last.”

Prosecutor Alessandro Diddi sought prison sentences between four and 13 years for the defendants, as well as nearly 500 million euros in restitution. Becciu maintained his “absolute innocence” and contended he did not steal “a single euro.” During the case, Becciu appeared to suggest the pope had turned on him even as he was forced to deny reports that he funded an international smear campaign against one of Francis’s fiercest conservative critics.

Some observers wondered why the Vatican sought to prosecute the complicated case that ran from Britain to Slovenia to Italy in the first place, rather than turn it over to better equipped Italian authorities.

After Francis became pope, Becciu, who formerly served as de facto chief of staff at the Vatican’s secretariat of state — its diplomatic arm — would frequently travel with him and was seen as one of the few men within the Holy See who could freely knock on the pope’s door.

During his time in that post, the secretariat invested in a luxury building on London’s fashionable Sloane Avenue through an Italian financier, Raffaele Mincione. The property had once served as warehouses for the Harrods department store. With upgrades, the Vatican was supposed to make a mint.

Instead, it turned out that the property had been radically overvalued. It was sold last year at a $175-million loss. But before that, attempts by the secretariat to refinance a loan through the Vatican bank set off alarm bells that got back to the pope and triggered the broader investigation.

A view, on Feb. 18, 2021, of 60 Sloane Avenue, a period building in West London owned by the Vatican.

On the stand, Becciu decried his transformation from pious cleric to “monster.” Behind the scenes, he set out to prove his innocence. In 2021, before the trial started, he wrote a series of letters to Francis, urging the pope to confirm he had knowledge of, and even supported, the London deal.

Becciu additionally asked Francis to admit he had prior knowledge of the agreement with Marogna, the woman with the charity in Slovenia who was paid an exorbitant fee for unclear services. Becciu has said he believed the money was going to assist the liberation of Sister Gloria Cecilia Narváez, a Colombian nun kidnapped in 2017 in Mali.

In a subsequent call to Francis, made the day after the pope was released from a Rome hospital for colon surgery, Becciu secretly recorded the pontiff, who appeared sympathetic to his plight. But a follow-up letter to the pope requesting his written support against the charges resulted in a frosty letter in legalese, in which Francis expressed his “surprise” at Becciu’s request and said he could not help him.

The prosecutors’ case in part rested on the testimony of Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, the Vatican official who had signed contracts related to a London property in 2018. Initially a target of the investigation, he altered his testimony and became a witness for the prosecution against Becciu. Former Vatican diplomat Francesca Chaouqui — jailed for 10 months in connection to the Vatileaks scandal which was seen as helping to prompt Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation — later testified that she had sought to influence Perlasca after blaming Becciu for playing a role in her downfall.

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