Cardinal Angelo Becciu met with Pope Francis Saturday evening, two days after prosecutors filed new evidence against the cardinal, which shows that Becciu secretly recorded the pope discussing state secrets, and allegedly conspired with members of his family to embezzle Church funds.
Becciu told reporters that over the weekend he had been assured by Pope Francis he could continue attending public events as a cardinal, after a “cordial” conversation with the pope, in which Becciu offered the pontiff “clarifications [he] deemed necessary,” about the mounting scandals facing the cardinal.
The cardinal did not specify what he clarified for Francis on Saturday, or why he deemed it necessary, and the meeting did not appear on the Holy See’s daily list of papal audiences.
Becciu’s private visit with the pope Nov. 26 came after a week in which prosecutors revealed that the cardinal had secretly recorded a 2021 phone call with the pope, just days before his Vatican City criminal trial began.
In evidence deposited Nov. 25, prosecutor Alessadnro Diddi included the transcript of a July 24, 2021 recorded conversation between Becciu and the pope — days before Becciu’s trial was set to begin, and while the pope was still convalescing after major colon surgery.
The recording was taken from a mobile phone belonging to Becciu’s niece, which was seized by Italian financial police during a series of searches conducted at the Vatican’s request on cardinal’s home island of Sardinia in February.
Diddi told the Vatican court on Thursday that, in addition to the recording, Italian financial police also turned over evidence showing falsified documents related to allegedly bogus food deliveries organized by the Spes Cooperative, a local Catholic charity run by Becciu’s brother, Mario.
Prosecutors have already shown in court that Mario Becciu was sent some 250,000 euros in Church funds by Becciu, including to his personal bank account. The money, Cardinal Becciu has insisted, was used for legitimate charitable purposes.
The evidence puts mounting pressure on Becciu’s legal defense in the Vatican trial — the cardinal has insisted he is innocent of all charges — and on his complicated relationship with Pope Francis.
Cardinal Becciu served as sostituto at the Secretariat of State, a role which practically serves as papal chief of staff, from 2012-2018, when he was made a cardinal by Pope Francis and appointed to lead the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
He was sacked from his curial positions and made to resign the rights and privileges as a cardinal by Francis in September, 2020, after the pope was shown a preliminary file of evidence suggesting financial crimes by Becciu during his time as sostituto.
The cardinal was formally charged with embezzlement, conspiracy, abuse of office, and subornation of witnesses on July 3, 2021, though he had been at the center of several roiling financial scandals at his former department for years, including the London property deal on which the Vatican lost more than 100 million euros.
Becciu’s scandals have also touched on his family connections.
In 2019, he faced questions about his role in securing a job for one of his nieces, Maria Piera Becciu at the IDI, a Catholic hospital run by a religious order which collapsed under debts of 800 million euros following large-scale acts of theft and money laundering that led to the imprisonment of its president, Fr. Franco Decaminada.
In the current trial, Becciu faces allegations that he used his office to funnel money to members of his own family, including 250,000 euros sent to bank accounts controlled by his brother, Antonio Becciu, who runs the Spes Cooperative, a Catholic charity in Sardinia.
Becciu told the court earlier this year that it was “normal practice” for him to wire hundreds of thousands of euros from Vatican accounts to the personal bank accounts of family members and that he “never wanted a euro, not even a cent, that [he] had managed or even just knew about, to be diverted, misused or destined to purposes that were not exclusively institutional.”
When financial police executed a series of searches on Church property and against members of his family in Sardinia in February, Becciu described it as a “humiliation for the [local] diocese and the bishop” and said he was “pained” by the targeting of members of his family.
Police seized records from the diocese, from parishes, and from Spes, related to the delivery and distribution of bread for the local poor.
Last week, Vatican prosecutors told the court that their Italian counterparts had found forged delivery receipts for nearly 20 tons of bread among the nearly 1,000 pages of paperwork they examined.
When the paperwork for the supposed deliveries was produced, no one recognized the signatures on the documents, prosecutors said, and Italian financial police concluded that they were created weeks prior to the searches but meant to cover supposed deliveries dating back to 2018.
Cherchez la femme
The most explosive revelation in court last week was that Italian police had found a recorded phone conversation between Becciu and Pope Francis on a mobile phone belonging to Maria Luisa Zambrano, Becciu’s niece.
The call was apparently recorded on July 24, 2021, just days before the opening of Becciu’s trial in Vatican City, and just a week after Francis underwent major surgery to remove parts of his colon.
The conversation was recorded in Becciu’s apartment in the Palazzo San Ufficio, and without the pope’s knowledge or consent.
In the call, Becciu can be heard asking Francis to confirm he approved a 2018 plan for the Vatican to bankroll ransom payments to free a kidnapped Colombian nun via a London private security consultancy. Pressed by the cardinal, Francis says he only remembers the proposal “vaguely” and asks Becciu to put his questions in writing.
The nun in question, Sr. Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, a Colombian religious sister, was abducted in 2017 by jihadist militants in Mali. She was freed in October 2021 after an operation credited to Italian intelligence agencies working in concert with Malian and Colombian operatives.
But Becciu has contended that Pope Francis authorized a secret plan to ransom the nun via the Inkerman Group, a UK private security and intelligence firm, and approved a budget of up to a million euros.
Becciu is accused of embezzling half a million euros he claims were part of the plan for the nun’s alleged ransom — money he sent to Cecilia Marogna, the “spy” he employed, who apparently spent the money on luxury handbags and five-star resorts.
Given that Becciu would soon be asked about that in court, Vatican watchers have understood his phone call as a bid to secure the pope’s endorsement of an alternative narrative — or to ensure the whole thing remained under state secrecy, so that Becciu couldn’t be asked about it in court.
In the July 24 phone call, Becciu can be heard asking the pope “did you or did not give me the authorization to start operations to free the nun?” before offering a sketch of the plan to offer ransom payments via the London firm.
Francis responds that he “vaguely remembers” the situation, but not the details, and repeatedly asks Becciu to write to him with details.
The pope’s recorded “vague” recollections may not be of much use to Becciu’s legal defense: While the pope did acknowledge some prior awareness of the plan to ransom the nun, Becciu did not mention — and Francis did not acknowledge — the alleged role of Marogna, the self-styled “kind of spy” employed by Becciu for years, and to whom he paid hundreds of thousands or euros which she allegedly spent on luxury goods and five-star resorts.
Marogna has claimed she worked to secure the nun’s release with the Inkerman Group and Italian intelligence — something Italian authorities have denied.
Marogna is also facing charges in Vatican City for aggravated embezzlement, and has previously said she also worked for Becciu to produce dossiers on the private moral failings of senior curial officials and said that her fees of more than half a million euros were “small change.”
“Becciu and I weren’t the only ones running certain businesses,” she said in an interview on Italian television in 2020.
Becciu’s former deputy at the Secretariat of State, Msgr. Alberto Perlasca has told prosecutors that he was ordered to pay the woman by Becciu, who declined to say what the money was for, or to whom it was going.
Becciu later allegedly berated Perlasca for not destroying departmental records of the transfers to Marogna and attempted to sue him in Italian court for damaging his health and reputation.
Last month, Becciu confirmed to the Vatican City court that when confronted by Vatican police about Marogna’s role in 2020, he had offered to personally reimburse the Holy See for the payments he authorized to her.
While the consensus among Vatican-watchers is that Becciu’s decision to secretly record his conversation with the pope was a bid to secure evidence for his Vatican trial, the move may instead open him up to new criminal charges.
At points during the conversation, Becciu pointedly reminded the pope that they were discussing a matter covered by state secrecy, and urged the pope to insist that secrecy continue to be applied to the plan to ransom the nun’s release.
“If we don’t observe state secrecy [about this]... eeeeeeh, we’re all free to say whatever we have to say…” Becciu told the pope, to which Francis responded “I understand.”
During appearances in court earlier this year, Becciu asserted state secrecy when refusing to answer questions about his involvement with Marogna, and Francis later intervened to waive confidentiality to allow the trial to continue.
However, at the time Becciu secretly had his call with Francis recorded, state secrecy was intact. Moreover, Becciu had the call recorded by his niece, who listened into the conversation and retained the recording.
As close followers of the trial noted over the weekend, shortly after his election in 2013, Francis issued a change to Vatican City law in the wake of the so-called Vatileaks scandal involving the former papal butler to Benedict XVI. The new law made the disclosure of "information and documents concerning the fundamental interests or diplomatic relations of the Holy See or of the State" punishable by up to 8 years in prison.
Prosecutors would now seem to have the option of adding additional charges of compromising state secrecy to Becciu’s indictment.
‘Cordial’ but complicated
Given the mounting evidence against Becciu, and the revelations that he secretly had the pope recorded by a member of his family, Francis’ decision to meet with Becciu on Saturday came as a surprise to many trial-watchers. However, the “cordial” meeting last weekend is just the latest in a long line of surprise gestures by the pope to his formerly closest advisor.
Following his meeting on Saturday, Becciu said Francis had “renewed [Becciu’s] invitation to continue to participate in the celebrations of cardinals,” clearing the way for him to continue appearing at public Vatican events even while he remains on trial.
The last contact between the two men came in August, when Becciu announced from the pulpit in a Sardianian church that Pope Francis had personally invited him to attend the consistory and would soon “reinstate” him to full membership of the College of Cardinals.
That reinstatement did not occur, and Becciu still cannot vote in a future conclave, though he did attend the consistory alongside the other cardinals. “The rights of the cardinalate [which Becciu has lost] do not refer to participation in the life of the Church,” Vatican media clarified at the time.
Francis previously made headlines when he joined Becciu for a private Mass in the cardinal’s apartment on Holy Thursday in 2021. On that occasion, the Vatican announced that it was a private act of pastoral mercy towards the cardinal.
To some, often including Becciu, Francis’ continued personal overtures towards the cardinal are signs that the pope intends to see his former chief of staff vindicated and restored to office.
But the pope’s “gestures” have not appeared to slow the prosecution of Becciu, nor do they appear to signal papal interference on his behalf.
Despite the Mass in his home in 2021, Becciu was charged later that year, and it was, according to prosecutors last Thursday, Francis who personally approved the depositing of the recorded phone call with the court. Meaning that, his invitation for Becciu to come to Rome in September notwithstanding, Francis was likely aware of the cardinal’s attempts to trap him on tape for some time and still backed the prosecutors’ efforts to bring as much evidence to trial as possible.
If new charges are brought over the taped phone call, it will be taken by most observers as indication that Francis’ pastoral concern for Becciu is unlikely to save him in court.