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Behind the headlines: What’s the real state of play in the Vatican financial trial?

Behind the soap-opera headlines, what is happening with the charges facing Cardinal Becciu and others?

First hearing of the trial of Cardinal Becciu and other Holy See officials at the Vatican, July 2021. Credit: Independent Photo Agency/Alamy.

The last several weeks have seen several genuinely shocking developments in the Vatican financial trial.

As the court approaches its 40th hearing, trial-watchers are still unpacking the news that Cardinal Angelo Becciu had his niece secretly tape a phone call with Pope Francis as they discussed his upcoming trial, which could easily be a whole scandal and trial of its own.

At the same time, lawyers for both the prosecution and defense are now trying to decide what to make of a revelation that the prosecution’s star witness was coached — possibly coerced — into testifying, and by the woman at the center of the previous Vatican “trial of the century.”

While judges have dismissed renewed calls for an extended adjournment or even a mistrial, there is a sense of chaos around the court’s proceedings.

But with all of the new developments, it can be hard to keep track of the actual state of the case against the trial’s defendants?

The Pillar explains:

Cardinal Becciu

Cardinal Angelo Becciu remains the star defendant in the sprawling trial. He also remains at the center of the most recent revelations in the courtroom, which his lawyer called “surreal” while demanding a halt to proceedings.

But does the current chaos mean Becciu is more likely to escape conviction? Not necessarily.

Last week, the Vatican City judges heard from Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, Becciu’s former deputy at the Secretariat of State, who has been the prosecution’s star witness since coming forward in 2020 to tell investigators about the business practices of his former department.

Perlasca’s testimony didn’t exactly go to plan for Promoter of Justice Alessandro Diddi and his team — the priest was warned several times by the judges about perjuring himself before, after several days, conceding that he’d actually been coached through a family friend in what he told prosecutors by Francesca Chaouqui, the woman convicted in 2016 of leaking classified Vatican information in the so-called “Vatileaks 2.0” scandal.

Prosecutor Diddi also told the court he’d been sent a trove of messages between Chaouqui and Genoveffa Ciferri, the woman through whom she’d been helping Perlasca, and to Perlasca directly, suggesting she could shield the monsignor from prosecution if he followed her advice.

Chaouqui is a complicating factor for a number of reasons. For a start, she’s a convicted criminal in Vatican City, having been given an 18-month suspended sentence in 2016 for leaking confidential documents.

She is also known to blame Becciu for her trial and conviction.

And according to leaked text messages published in 2020, she texted the cardinal in 2017 demanding his help rehabilitating her reputation and warning him about things “that could get you in serious trouble I’m keeping to myself.”

She’s also said to have presented herself to prosecutors in 2020, shortly after Becciu was sacked by Pope Francis, with an offer to cooperate with any investigation into him.

Chaouqui is now alleged to have made similar threats to Perlasca, encouraging him to turn on Becciu, his former boss, in exchange for her help in avoiding prosecution and claiming she was working with Diddi’s office — something Diddi has denied, though he did concede last week Perlasca had complained about Chaoqui’s efforts to strongarm him in March of this year.

Becciu’s legal team contend that the sudden emergence of Chaouqui’s involvement, and apparent coaching of Perlasca to give evidence against the cardinal, proves the charges against him are a frame job, based on malicious and false accusations from known antagonists.

But the judges have declined to throw the case out, and the reality may be that no matter how “surreal” the Chaouqui/Perlasca saga gets, it will have little bearing on the final verdict in Becciu’s case.

While the return of “La Bomba Sexy,” as the Italian media dubbed Chaouqui when she first come on the Vatican scene, may make for easy tabloid copy, in terms of the trial, it’s something of a distraction from the real revelation of recent weeks: that Italian financial police had identified forged delivery receipts for nearly 20 tons of bread supposedly delivered to parishes by the Spes cooperative in the cardinal’s native Sardinia.

Spes is a local Catholic charity run by Becciu’s brother, and the cardinal is accused of using his office to funnel Church money to members of his own family, including 250,000 euros sent to bank accounts controlled by his brother, ostensibly meant for Spes.

Becciu has denied the money he sent to members of his family is anything other than “normal practice,” and said that he’d never allow a “single cent” of Church funds to be misused. But he is now facing a mounting paper trail suggesting otherwise — whatever the judges choose to make of Chaouqi’s collaboration with Perlasca.

The cardinal’s apparent attempt to get Pope Francis to confirm he authorized an alleged plan to ransom a kidnapped nun in 2018 may also backfire on Becciu.

Becciu has stridently denied there was anything illicit or improper about his payments to Cecilia Marogna, the self-styled “kind of spy” he employed for years, and who is now accused of embezzling half a million euros in church funds, and insisted it was all part of a secret bid to free Sr. Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, a Colombian religious sister, was abducted in 2017 by jihadist militants in Mali.

The cardinal previously told the court that the whole operation was a state secret. But, after the pope lifted the pontifical secret, he went on to try to pin total responsibility on Francis. But things took a turn to the dramatic when, two weeks ago, the court received a transcript of a phone call between the pope and the cardinal just days before the trial started in July, 2021.

In the call, an audibly tired Francis, who was recovering from surgery, tells Becciu he “vaguely” recalls a plan to negotiate for the sister’s release but not the details as the cardinal tries to jog the pope’s memory and get him to accept responsibility for the plan.

But if Becciu hoped that getting Francis on the phone and recording the call would provide him with a “get out of jail free” card in court, it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way.

For a start, neither he nor the pope mention Marogna’s involvement in the plan, or the half a million in payments to her Slovenian-based company which were spent on luxury travel and designer label goods. Nor do they discuss Marogna’s claim to Italian media that she also worked for Becciu to compile dossiers on the private moral failing of curial officials.

Arguably worse for Becciu, he put the pope on speaker phone and had the call recorded by his niece, all without the pope’s knowledge.

While they didn’t discuss Marogna, they did acknowledge — at several points — that what they were talking about was a state secret, meaning Becciu appears to have breached confidentiality laws in Vatican City, potentially opening himself up to new charges.

While Becciu had a private meeting with Francis to “clarify some things” shortly after the call’s audio file was deposited in evidence, prosecutors told the court Francis had personally approved the decision to release the tape.

Ever since Francis sacked Becciu in 2020, the cardinal has pinned his hopes on Francis personally intervening to rehabilitate him — and predicted the pope would do so more than once. But, so far, while Francis has made several gestures of “closeness” to his former chief of staff, his only direct interventions in the process have been to declassify more evidence to be used against Becciu in court.


Perlasca

Ever since it emerged in 2020 that Msgr. Alberto Perlasca was cooperating with investigators looking into his former department at the Secretariat of State, questions have swirled about his motivations and credibility.

Perlasca was moved on from his job as head of the secretariat’s administrative office in July 2019, shortly after the now-infamous London property deal was finally concluded, and made — ironically — a prosecutor at the Vatican’s canonical supreme court.

He was in that job for less than a year. After a series of high profile raids on the Secretariat of State kicked off the investigation into the London deal in October in 2019, Perlasca’s home and new office were raided the following February, and he never returned to work. It was shortly thereafter that he allegedly heard from Chaoqui and started considering becoming a witness instead of a potential suspect, before presenting himself to prosecutors in August.

Even before he ever set foot in court last month, Perlasca’s testimony was hotly disputed and left many court-watchers wondering why he wasn’t among those being charged by prosecutors.

Leaked portions of his interviews with prosecutors appeared to show him frequently reversing himself on how the London deal was structured, what the pope knew and when, and what role Perlasca himself played in all of it.

In his own submissions to investigators, Becciu’s successor as sostituto, Archbishop Edgar Peña Para, painted a daming picture of mismanagement and possible corruption in his own department, with Perlasca a key figure.

And legal filings in London appear to show it was Perlasca who had the power of attorney necessary to approve the most controversial parts of the London deal which allegedly allowed the Holy See to be extorted for millions by Gianluigi Torzi.

While the promoter of justice, Alessandro Diddi, has insisted to the court that there’s no truth to Chaoqui’s apparent claim to Perlasca that she was working with prosecutors, she may not have been wrong in (allegedly) advising the monsignor that cooperating with Diddi’s office was his best bet for avoiding prosecution himself.

But Perlasca now faces two problems:

The first is that the revelations that he wasn’t entirely straightforward with either the prosecutors or the judges about who was helping him prepare what he told them have resulted in Diddi opening a whole new investigation which, he’s already told the court, could lead to charges against Perlasca.

The second, perhaps bigger problem for the former official is that while his lengthy interviews with Diddi seem to have generated some very useful leads during the investigation, and provided very colorful anecdotes about Becciu and others, the actual cases being brought in court rely mostly on physical documents and material evidence, not on the monsignor’s variable recollections.

If Perlasca did benefit from a kind of informal agreement with Diddi’s office, giving him a sort of whistleblower’s immunity during the investigation, it looks increasingly likely that he’s outlived his usefulness to prosecutors and become a liability.

If that’s the case, it may not be too long before he finds himself facing questions about his work at the Secretariat of State, not as a witness but as a defendant.


The other guys

While much of the media spotlight has focused on Becciu, Perlasca, and the increasing cast list of femmes fatale in the allegations against them both, it is worth remembering that there are several other defendants currently on trial.

Torzi and Mincione
Last week, the court also heard from a respected investment manager, who gave a withering character assessment of Gianluigi Torzi, who is accused of shaking the Vatican down for millions while acting as their agent in the London property deal.

In addition to allegedly extorting the Vatican, extensive reporting has raised questions, since before the trial began, about Torzi’s financial links and business dealings with Raffaele Mincione, the investment manager who sold the Vatican the building.

During the period of years the Secretariat of State invested 200 million in Mincione’s Athena Global Opportunities Fund, Mincione invested Vatican money in debt products marketed by Torzi, some with links to mafia-affiliated companies. Mincione invested Vatican money into one such debt product called Sierra One bond,

Torzi, in turn, used his companies to lend Mincione tens of millions of euros during the same period.

Crasso and Tirabassi
Last week, the same witness also spoke of an apparent arrangement between Fabrizio Tirabassi — a former staffer in Perlasca’s old office accused of fraud, abuse of office and embezzlement — and Enrico Crasso, a former investment advisor to the secretariat, to steer Vatican business to Credit Suisse, where Crasso worked at the time and where Tirabassi had a “finder’s fee” deal.

Tirabassi had, according to reporting and court filings, deals with several Swiss banks which paid him fees for steering Vatican business to them.

After leaving Credit Suisse, Crasso founded Sogenel, an investment company through which he managed the Centurion Global Fund, into which the Secretariat of State invested tens of millions of euros, including money from Peter’s Pence, the annual worldwide collection to support the ministry of the pope.

The fund famously invested in several Hollywood films, including Rocketman, the Elton John biopic. Previous reporting has established that all the fund’s investments were held through a small Swiss bank in Lugano, Banca Zarattini. In 2018, U.S. prosecutors named that bank in indictments during a $1 billion money laundering case related to both the Venezualen national oil company PDVSA and Nicholas Maduro. Funds held at the bank were identified for seizure in the case.

In December 2019, Pope Francis ordered the fund liquidated after media reports on its investments.

Crasso is also accused of duping the Vatican into a 7 million euro investment, supposedly to buy a bond issued to raise money to finance the construction of a highway in North Carolina.

The highway, and the bond, never existed and the money was actually used to fund an equity stake in three Italian companies. Crasso later told Vatican prosecutors that he had “never heard of North Carolina.”

Crasso and Tirabassi have also both been accused of extortion by Gianluigi Torzi, who told a court in London that they threatened him and his family while demanding control of the London building for themselves.

Brülhart and Di Ruzza
Since the charges were first announced against the former president and director of the Vatican financial watchdog, René Brülhart and Tommasso Di Ruzza, events have also shed new light on their former department’s place at the center of various financial scandals.

It has emerged in court that the Financial Supervisory and Information Authority (which they led until 2019) failed to act on suspicious transaction reports filed by Vatican bank officials which went on to trigger the investigation into the London property deal.

And recent reporting from The Pillar has found that the ASIF concluded there was nothing suspicious about a 2016 move by Cardinal Becciu to drain the bank account belonging to the Secretariat for the Economy of the independent department’s entire operating budget.

The Pillar also previously broke the news that while he was president of the ASIF, Brülhart had a second job as an advisor to the Secretariat of State, a part time position which doubled his Vatican salary.

The trial remains ongoing.

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