Cardinal found guilty of embezzlement in Vatican 'trial of the century'

Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu was convicted of embezzlement in a historic trial. He was acquitted of charges of money laundering, abuse of office and influencing a witness. Picture: REUTERS/Max Rossi

Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu was convicted of embezzlement in a historic trial. He was acquitted of charges of money laundering, abuse of office and influencing a witness. Picture: REUTERS/Max Rossi

Published Dec 17, 2023


Vatican City - 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 to be tried by the Vatican's little-known criminal court - was found guilty of three counts of embezzlement and sentenced to five years and six months in a verdict read out in a converted quarter of the museum that houses the Sistine Chapel. He was acquitted of charges of money laundering, abuse of office and influencing a witness.

Becciu's lawyers said they would appeal the decision. But the ruling put the cardinal closer to one of Vatican City's handful of jail cells - a result that amounts to both an affirmation of accountability and an embarrassment for an institution that has struggled for decades to root out corruption.

Becciu was barred from holding any Vatican office and fined 8,000 euros (around $8,700).

The trial, a hodgepodge of charges heard over a marathon of 86 courtroom hearings, offered an unusual glimpse into the murky world of Vatican finances and Pope Francis's campaign for accountability - even, critics argued, at the cost of due process.

Eight of Becciu's co-defendants - Vatican officials, Italian business executives, consultants and brokers - were found guilty of financial crimes or abuse of office. A ninth was acquitted of all charges.

But the star defendant was Becciu, a papal confidant before a surprise 2020 meeting during which Francis dramatically confronted him with the accusations against him.

In response, Becciu resigned as head of the Vatican department that leads the canonization process. Francis stripped him of his privileges as cardinal before any finding of guilt. Later, some of those rights were unofficially reinstated.

The court ordered the guilty to pay the Vatican more than $200 million in restitution.

The Vatican, however, also emerges worse for wear, with new questions raised about the effectiveness and fairness of its legal system. The prosecution, portrayed by church leaders as an exercise in transparency, appeared to backfire in key ways, bringing unwanted attention to the intrigue, infighting and ineptitude at heart of the Holy See.

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

The sweeping investigation was prompted by a bad Vatican investment in a tony London property that led to massive losses. As prosecutors dug, they discovered transfers of 200 million euros approved by Becciu in 2013 and 2014 and wired in connection to the London deal. The court found that the transactions were embezzlement.

Other senior Vatican officials who signed off on the London deal were never indicted, and the pope had been apprised of it.

Becciu was also found guilty of illegally funneling 125,000 euros (about $136,400) to a Sardinian charity run by his brother and transferring 570,000 euros (about $622,000) to Cecilia Marogna, a Sardinian woman with a humanitarian organization in Slovenia who, Becciu said, was supposed to help free a kidnapped nun.

A lawyer for Becciu rejected the verdict.

"We're certain that the proceedings have proven the cardinal's innocence," attorney Fabio Viglione said.

Viglione said Becciu was "embittered" by the verdict and insisted he had always acted in "agreement with his superiors."

"We aren't giving up," Viglione said.

Before the trial, Francis approved secret edicts aimed at empowering prosecutors, including one that allowed investigators to engage in wiretapping. Supporters said the pope was increasing transparency; critics called it overreach by a man who rules Vatican City as an absolute monarch.

Vatican prosecutors were plagued by setbacks, including questions about the credibility of their star witness and revelations that he had been coached by a Becciu adversary. But the verdict, they said, vindicated them.

"We were told we were incompetent and ignorant," said Alessandro Diddi, who led the prosecution. "They said all sorts of things. But in reality, the end result proved us right."

A pope elected with a mandate to reform the Roman Curia - the opaque bureaucracy that runs Vatican City - was seen as having made strides toward improving 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 required Vatican officials to sign pledges declaring that they have no assets in tax havens and banned employees from accepting gifts worth more than $50.

The Becciu case "says a lot about the pope's will - theatrical and spectacular - to clean house," said the Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, a noted Vatican watcher. "Becciu became a sort of symbol, or a scapegoat . . . of a system that had to be dealt with at last."

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."

Some questioned 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.

Becciu, who served at onetime as de facto chief of staff of the Vatican's secretariat of state, traveled frequently with Francis and was seen as one of the few men within the Holy See who could knock freely 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 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.

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

Becciu also asked Francis to admit he had prior knowledge of the agreement with Marogna, the woman with the Slovenian charity who was paid a 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.

Marogna was convicted of embezzlement Saturday and sentenced to three years and nine months.

Becciu secretly recorded a phone call in which Francis appeared sympathetic to his plight. But a follow-up letter in which he asked for the pope's support against the charges drew a frosty response in legalese, in which Francis expressed his "surprise" at Becciu's request and said he could not help him.

"I regret to inform you that I cannot comply with your request," the pope wrote.

The prosecutors' case rested in part on the testimony of Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, a Vatican official who signed contracts related to a London property in 2018. Perlasca, initially a target of the investigation, altered his testimony and became a witness for the prosecution against Becciu.

Former Vatican official Francesca Chaouqui - jailed for 10 months in connection to the Vatileaks scandal, which was seen as helping 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.

Washington Post