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Business ‘outside the family’: What if Becciu blames Pope Francis?

Cardinal Angelo Becciu is on a month-long break from his trial in Vatican City, where he faces charges of abuse of office, embezzlement, and conspiracy.

The former sostituto at the Secretariat of State was originally scheduled to make his second appearance in court at the beginning of this month, but after the pope decided to waive the pontifical secret for his former chief of staff, Becciu’s legal team discovered a scheduling conflict which required his appearance in court be pushed back by a month.

Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, Rome, 25 September, 2020. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo.

The cardinal will likely spend at least some of that month with his lawyers, revising his trial strategy — which could lean heavily on discussing what the pope knew, and approved, about his alleged actions.

Perhaps the most interesting consideration is whether Becciu will attempt to implicate Pope Francis in order to save himself.

“Taking sides against the family” might usually violate his personal code, but the situation has changed for Becciu. The cardinal might earnestly believe Pope Francis has left him holding the bag after his efforts to serve the pontiff went south.

And if Becciu feels he has been betrayed, the next chapter of his courtroom drama might well be the most dramatic.

When he last appeared in court, on March 17, Becciu opened his appearance with a grand declaration of his “total willingness to seek and tell the truth.”

Becciu answered questions that day about his alleged actions to steer Church funds to members of his own family, confidently asserting that depositing hundreds of thousands of euros into his brother’s personal bank account was a standard Vatican practice for dealing with charitable endeavors, and defending his patronage of projects in his native Sardinia.

It remains to be seen how persuaded the judges will be by those answers.

But after the pope’s decision to lift the pontifical secret for Becciu, trial-watchers know the most complicated and potentially sensitive matters will be discussed when Becciu is back in the courtroom.

The cardinal’s sudden “scheduling conflict” has been seen around the courtroom as a sign that Becciu was surprised by Francis’ decision, and now needs several weeks to prepare before discussing subjects he believed he’d be excused from addressing directly.

How the cardinal chooses to answer them will hinge on personal, as much as strictly legal, considerations.

Becciu has often insisted on his own loyalty, both to the curial institutions he served and to the pope personally, suggesting at times that even discussing operational matters could amount to a personal betrayal of the pontiff.

The cardinal does not usually discuss business outside “the family,” as it were.

But it is possible that Becciu might feel Francis’ decision to lift pontifical secrecy has left him exposed, and amounts to a kind of betrayal of mutual trust and loyalty, especially if he begins to feel he is being scapegoated by either the pope or his old department.

If that is the case, Becciu might decide that demonstrating his innocence requires violating the kind of curial omerta he has kept himself to, no matter whom that may implicate.

Before the London property deal was arranged in 2018, the Secretariat of State, under Becciu, had been involved for years with Raffaele Mincione, the investment manager who eventually sold them the building at 60 Sloane Ave. Original reporting on that relationship had nothing to do with real estate, and was instead focused on the origin of and accounting for the 200 million euros which the secretariat invested in one of Mincione’s funds.

That money was borrowed from Swiss banks, with the loans secured against other assets and funds on deposit, including Peter’s Pence. Those loans, and the investment with Mincione, were kept off of the department’s balance sheets using prohibited accounting measures, creating a conflict with Vatican financial authorities under Cardinal George Pell; a conflict Pell’s Secretariat for the Economy appeared to lose when Becciu canceled a curia-wide audit arranged by Pell’s department.

If asked in court about those loans and investments, and the prohibited accounting methods used to obscure them, Becciu might struggle to dispute that they violated — strictly speaking — Vatican laws issued by Pope Francis.

But Becciu might well insist that the pope was read into the situation and blessed his actions — exonerating himself, but painting the pope as undercutting his own reforms in the process.

Similarly, Becciu has faced allegations he spied on and then forced out Libero Milone, the Vatican’s first auditor general, in 2017 when Milone got too close to uncovering illicit financial activities at the Secretariat of State. If confronted about that episode by judges in court, Becciu again might deflect ultimate responsibility to the pope.

Pope Francis was elected with a reforming mandate, and made efforts to reassure the College of Cardinals, financial regulators, and interesting Catholics that the Vatican’s old was of doing things was finished, and that its business practices would soon be “completely legitimate” — at least according to modern standards of accounting, transparency, and accountability.

In his 2017 Christmas address to the curia, Francis made a thinly-veiled reference to Milone when he spoke about “persons carefully selected to give a greater vigour to the [curial] body and to the reform, but – failing to understand the lofty nature of their responsibility – let themselves be corrupted by ambition or vainglory. Then, when they are quietly sidelined, they wrongly declare themselves martyrs of the system, of a ‘pope kept in the dark,’ of the ‘old guard’…, rather than reciting a mea culpa.”

If Becciu were to tell the judges that spying on Milone was approved by the pope, and that Francis signed off on forcing Milone’s resignation under threat of prosecution, it would call into question the entire curial reform project of Francis’ pontificate, and lead many to question the sincerity, and urgency, of the slate of financial legal changes issued by the pope in recent years.

And things could get even more tricky when it comes to Cecilia Marogna, the self-styled security consultant and private spy to whom Becciu paid hundreds of thousands of euros in Vatican funds.

Marogna has claimed that she worked for the Secretariat of State to help negotiate the release of kidnapped religious sisters and priests in trouble spots across the world, a claim Italian intelligence services have disputed. But she has also said she worked for Becciu to compile dossiers for him on the private moral failings of senior curial officials.

Becciu has himself not commented on Marogna’s work for the secretariat, citing pontifical secrecy. But, at least according to Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, his former colleague at the department and the prosecution’s star witness, the cardinal was reluctant to discuss the nature of Margona’s employment, even while instructing Perlasca to pay her.

In an interview with investigators reported Jan. 29, Perlasca recalled a discussion he had with Becciu about the payments to Marogna.

“The cardinal told me that the 500,000 we gave was more of a ‘contribution,’ because [Marogna’s] request was much higher, it was millions ... it was millions, it was three or four million, something like that,” Perlasca told investigators.

“I said [to Becciu] ‘Look, but how long and for what did we give her this money?’ ‘Eeeeeeh! We can talk about that in four or five years,’ he told me.”

Perlasca has also told investigators that he didn’t know who Marogna was, or what she did, even while he was arranging payments to her for Becciu, even after the cardinal had left the Secretariat of State in 2018. But, Perlasca said, Becciu had assured him that Pope Francis had personally approved the payments and that it was a matter of “great secrecy.”

If Becciu were to repeat those alleged claims of papal authorization in court, it would raise some very pointed questions about exactly what the pope knew and approved, especially given Marogna’s claims to have worked to compile kompromat dossiers on Vatican officials.

While it’s perfectly possible Francis approved payments to Marogna for her (disputed) role in arranging the release of a kidnapped nun, the pope is unlikely to want to have to clarify the details — meaning Becciu could again deflect responsibility for his own alleged actions onto the pope, without having to answer for their strict legality.

Of course, passing the buck to the pope in any or all of these cases would be a point of no return for Becciu, who has insisted on his deep, personal loyalty to Francis. Placing the pope squarely in the middle of a trail which has become a test of Francis’ reforming commitment would represent a final breach between the cardinal and the pontiff.

While his legal team might view that plan as the most expedient and possibly safest bet for Becciu to escape a conviction in court, the cardinal himself might view it more as a kind of nuclear deterrent.

If Becciu were to start signaling his ability, if not willingness, to bring Francis into the mix when answering questions, it might be with hopes that judges would be persuaded to be circumspect in their dealings with him, rather than risk seeing the whole trial derailed by the alleged involvement of a pope they are powerless to interrogate.

Whatever courtroom tactic Becciu decides to adopt when he next appears in court on May 5, it is likely to be telegraphed in the Italian media in the coming weeks. Shortly after the pope waived the pontifical secret, a website carried a report apparently answering long-standing questions about Becciu’s payment to an Australian tech security company, something the cardinal had always insisted was strictly “classified.”

If similar outlets begin carrying stories linking Pope Francis to Becciu’s case, it seems a safe bet the cardinal wants to foreshadow what he might choose to say in court, now that he is free to talk.

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