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Becciu’s day in court: What to expect

Cardinal Angelo Becciu is scheduled to give testimony Thursday on the first day of evidentiary hearings in the Vatican’s criminal financial trial. The testimony will  mark the end of a long wait for the cardinal, who has insisted he has been looking forward to answering the allegations against him. But what will he be asked, and what will he say?

Cardinal Angelo Becciu. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Ever since he was sacked in disgrace by Pope Francis in September 2020, Cardinal Becciu has insisted that he has done nothing wrong, despite the evidence of financial malpractice collected by investigators, and that he is looking forward to his day in court.

Facing charges of embezzlement, abuse of office, and obstruction of justice, the cardinal has insisted that he is a loyal servant of the Church and of the pope, and claimed he is the victim of a smear campaign by journalists.

Beginning tomorrow, he’ll be asked to account for a range of financial transactions which he ordered and approved during his time at the Secretariat of State and after, and to explain his relationships with a number of the co-defendants in the trial. In some cases, Becciu has already indicated how he intends to justify his actions, but he may also try to avoid giving straight answers on some messy subjects.

All in the family?

Some of the most attention-grabbing charges against Becciu relate to allegations that he steered Church funds to charities, bank accounts, and companies controlled by his family, especially his brothers.

Vatican prosecutors, together with Italian authorities, have raided a number of Church offices in search of evidence that Becciu sent money to his family.

These include contracting a building company owned by one of his brothers for refurbishment projects at nunciatures around the world where Becciu served, including in Angola and Cuba, and steering hundreds of thousands of euros from Peter’s Pence, the IOR (a Vatican bank), and the Italian bishops’ conference to the Spes cooperative, a diocesan charity in Becciu’s native Sardina run by another of his brothers.

The cardinal has been forthright in denying these charges, and he appears confident about being able to explain away. Becciu seems set to argue that in most cases, his decisions were prudent uses of Church money, and even if they involved members of his family, no laws were broken.

Many of the charges related to Becciu’s family seem likely to come down to questions about the Vatican’s financial culture. Since he came to office in 2013, Pope Francis has issued a steady stream of legal reforms aimed at cleaning up a climate of nepotism, preferential treatment, and poor due diligence procedures. Becciu may well contend that much of what he did was accepted practice at the time, whatever the new normal might now be.

It is worth watching how broadly the judges decide to question Becciu about the overlap between his family and work. Apart from direct allegations of embezzlement, there have long been questions about financial investments made by his former department in questionable schemes involving members of Becciu’s family, including the IDI scandal of 2011.

The London deal

The starting point for the investigation which led to the sprawling indictment filed by prosecutors last July was the Vatican’s purchase of a building at 60 Sloane Avenue.

While many of the other defendants, including Gianluigi Torzi and Raffaele Mincione, are likely to face questions (should they ever appear in court) about the way that deal was structured, Becciu may be asked about how his former department became embroiled with those businessmen in the first place.

Previous reporting has established that buying the building, in addition to being a staggeringly bad investment, was just the final phase in the Vatican’s efforts to disentangle themselves from Mincione Athena Global Opportunities Fund, in which the Secretariat of State invested some 200 million euros back in 2014.

The secretariat’s investment came from money borrowed against Vatican assets held at two Swiss banks, Credit Suisse and BSI — the latter of which was closed by Swiss authorities for money laundering violations undertaken on behalf of its clients, most especially sovereign wealth funds.

The paper value of the investment with Mincione was used to zero out the loans on secretariat balance sheets, effectively making the entire arrangement off-books, using an accounting maneuver banned by Pope Francis in one of his earliest financial reforms. But the move was detected by Cardinal Pell’s team during his time leading the Secretariat for the Economy and led to several clashes with Becciu and the secretariat.

If they were so minded, prosecutors could argue that action alone constitutes abuse of office by secretariat officials including Becciu, and puts them on the hook for the Vatican’s subsequent losses.

Cardinal Becciu might insist, as he has in the past, that this is all confected as part of a conspiracy to smear him. But, with figures as senior as Pell himself confirming the narrative, Becciu could find that indignant denials don’t get him as far in court as they do on Twitter:

Financial intelligence?

Perhaps one of the most fascinating sides of the financial scandal has been the consistent allegations of spying between different Vatican institutions. And it seems likely to feature in prosecution questions, if not tomorrow then at some point soon in the trial sessions.

Several people have testified to prosecutors about Secretariat of State officials enlisting the help of external “IT security experts” and even Italian intelligence officers in efforts to spy on business associates and even Vatican financial institutions.

The Vatican’s first auditor general, Libero Milone, was forced by Becciu to resign in 2017 under threat of criminal prosecution. Becciu said at the time that Milone had exceeded the authority of his office and was prying into the private financial dealings of Becciu himself, though he didn’t say how he knew this, or why it didn’t fall squarely within the auditor’s remit.

Milone himself has said that he repeatedly informed Vatican gendarmes that his offices and computers had been bugged, and that when they investigated, they found evidence of bugging which led to a Vatican apartment owned by the Secretariat of State which they didn’t have authorization to investigate.

Meanwhile, next to Becciu in the dock (metaphorically if not physically) is Cecilia Marogna, the self-described geo-political analyst and security consultant, who has claimed she worked for the Secretariat of State to arrange the freeing of kidnapped religious sisters in trouble spots around the world. Italian intelligence services have begged to differ, at least according to some reports.

But Marogna has also said that Becciu tasked her with compiling dossiers of compromising information on the private moral failings of senior Vatican officials. No one has yet stepped forward to deny that claim, not even Becciu.

Becciu and Marogna are jointly charged with embezzlement over the hundreds of thousands of euros the cardinal had paid to her out of Secretariat of State funds — even after he left the Secretariat of State in 2018. Becciu’s former deputy at the department, Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, told investigators that the cardinal ordered him to destroy evidence of the payments, but he refused to do so.

When Perlasca asked what all the money given to Marogna was for, Becciu reportedly told him: “Eeeeeeh! We can talk about that in four or five years.”

The judges are likely to ask about it sooner than that.

State secrets

Becciu has also faced questions in the media, and from Cardinal Pell himself, about the strange matter of some 2 million euros he had sent to the Melbourne office of a tech security company which has become wrapped up in an FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.

Italian media have speculated that the payments were in some way linked to Pell’s prosecution in Australia on later-debunked allegations of sexual abuse, which resulted in Pell having to leave his post overseeing Vatican financial reforms — something Becciu has vigorously denied.

The cardinal told The Pillar last year that the payments were “classified,” and he couldn’t possibly talk about them.

In December, Cardinal Pell noted that Perlasca had told investigators that he thought the payments were to help fund Pell’s legal defense, even though they began before Pell was put on trial.

“That’s certainly not true,” Pell said. “We certainly received nothing. So I have one question for Cardinal Becciu: Will he just tell us what the money was sent for?”

Becciu responded by calling Pell’s questions “beneath the dignity of cardinals,” but promised to answer them “point by point” during the Vatican city trial — even while his lawyers argued for several motions to dismiss the case.

If asked about the affair in court, Becciu may again try to cite state secrecy as an excuse not to answer, but if he does so, the Secretariat of State and Pope Francis may decide they, too, would like some answers and wave the privilege of state secrecy.

Badgering the witness

Prosecutors dropped, and the refiled, a charge against Becciu that claims he attempted to suborn the testimony of Msgr. Perlasca, who ran the Secretariat of State’s administrative office under Becciu, and who has admitted he arranged millions of euros of payments for the cardinal and supplied him with thousands of euros in cash.

According to Perlasca, when he told Becciu what he said to investigators, the cardinal became “very angry” with him, demanded to know why he hadn’t erased evidence of the transactions, and told him to only communicate with him via secure encrypted apps in future.

Becciu has denied the allegations, but judges might have some fairly pointed questions for him. If he didn’t try to interfere in Perlasca’ cooperation with investigators, why, for example, did he try to sue Perlasca for defamation over what he told them?

End of the beginning

After more than four years of media coverage, two years of investigations, and seven months of pre-trial hearings, Becciu’s first day as a witness in his own defense feels like a kind of climax to proceedings.

But the reality is the trial is just now getting going in earnest, and Thursday’s hearing is likely to be the first of many occasions when the cardinal will be asked to account for his actions.

March 17 is far from the beginning of the end of the Vatican financial trial, but it is, at least, finally the end of the beginning.

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