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Cardinal Parolin’s day in court: What to expect

Cardinal Pietro Parolin is set to give testimony next month in the Vatican financial trial. So, what might he be asked, and what might he say?

Cardinal Pietro Parolin. Credit: Ināra Mūrniece/CC BY-SA 2.0

Cardinal Pietro Parolin is set to make a kind of history in the New Year. The Secretary of State is due to give testimony next month in the Vatican financial trial, where he will be asked to give evidence about — for or against, we will see — his former deputy and brother cardinal, Angelo Becciu.

The prospect of cardinal-on-cardinal court testimony in a criminal trial, held in open court, is enough to make the event a must-see for Vatican watchers. But Parolin is also representing his department — the Secretariat of State is a civil party to the case —  it is attempting to claw back some of its money from the cast of characters on trial for allegedly defrauding it for millions, if not hundreds of millions.

So, what might he be asked, and what might he say?

The dual nature of Parolin’s appearance, speaking both about the internal workings of the Vatican’s premier curial department and speaking for that department on its dealings with external actors, will place the cardinal in a tricky position.

It may prove impossible for him to both credibly represent the claims of his department in the trial and to avoid laying blame at Becciu’s feet — if he is concerned with avoiding that.

If Parolin tries too hard to thread the needle, he could end up painting himself as naive or, worse, easily duped by his officials and advisors, and unable to lead the secretariat.

When Parolin comes to court on January 25 or 26, at stake could be the fate of Cardinal Becciu, the prosecution's case against the other defendants, but also Parolin’s own credibility as a leader and even as a potential future pope.

The London deal

The entire investigation and trial began over the Secretariat of State’s decision to invest some 200 million euros with the Anglo-Italian businessman Rafaelle Mincione in 2014.

Parolin will certainly be asked about what he knew, what he signed off on, and when, as that relationship unfolded in the course of the next four years.

There remain interesting questions about where the 200 million came from, and about how the investment was recorded — or obscured — in curial ledgers. Parolin could well face some of those questions.

Previous reporting has established that the money was actually loaned from two Swiss banks, one of which was subsequently shuttered for anti-money laundering violations, and that the first ructions over the deal came when the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy tried to get clear accounts of how much was borrowed, from whom, and to invest in what.

Those efforts were rebuffed by the Secretariat of State, primarily through Cardinal Becciu during his time as sostituto.

Was Parolin supportive of all of this? And, if not, was he even aware it was happening under his nose?

Whatever he chooses to say next month, he’ll be faced with the unpleasant choice of either admitting he backed opposition to Pope Francis’ financial reforms, and blocked scrutiny of a deal that clearly merited it, or of giving the appearance of having been a figure head at the top of his department, while his deputy exercised all the real power.

Of course, the Secretary of State isn’t necessarily expected to have eyes on every financial deal done by his department — that is part of what the sostituto is for, after all. But what Parolin understood and when is something he is going to have to clarify, and square with his previous statements on the subject.

After Cardinal Becciu moved out of the department in 2018, the decision was made to cut ties with Mincione and withdraw early from his fund. This proved a ruinously expensive proposition: it cost the Secretariat of State all of its initial 200 million investment, plus another 50 or so million euros and was supposed to leave them with ownership of the now famous building at 60 Sloane Ave.

It also led to the businessman Gianluigi Torzi, a business associate of Mincione’s appointed to convey ownership of the building to the Vatican, being able to allegedly extort the Vatican for millions over control of the property.

By October of 2019, the Vatican investigation into the deal was underway and raids had been conducted on secretariat offices. Parolin told journalists that month that “This deal was rather opaque,” but “we are working to clear up everything.”

It was an interesting choice of words by the cardinal, and seemed to suggest he was learning of the details for the first time himself. Though that seems hard to square with some facts.

Earlier that year, Parolin wrote personally to the president of IOR, a Vatican bank, pressuring him to approve a loan the bank had rejected  to underwrite a 50 million euro mortgage on the London property.

The bank’s leadership went first to the Vatican’s Financial Information and Supervisory Authority about the deal, but ASIF declined to take an interest. Then, they went straight to Vatican prosecutors and Pope Francis about the secretariat’s demand for a loan, calling the proposal… “opaque.”

It was that complaint which triggered the investigation in the first place.

Meanwhile, in a London court fighting to prevent his extradition to face charges in the Vatican, Gianluigi Torzi filed paperwork bearing Parolin’s signature which appeared to show the cardinal had personally approved the details of the deal which allowed Torzi to maintain effective control of the building despite the Vatican’s purchase of it.

Parolin is, at some point, likely to be asked what he signed when, and why. And his answer seems likely to be that he relied on the advice of crooked advisors and didn’t understand what he was getting the Vatican into.

That may be true. Though it will prompt the obvious question of why he was taking advice from people like Enrico Crasso or Torzi in the first place. That could prove a very awkward question for the cardinal, and how credible an answer he finds to it may determine if the court decides his department has a right to get its money back.

Business as usual?

Leaving aside its business with outsiders, within Parolin’s own department there is a lot to be explained.

As the trial has unfolded, his current deputy, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra has painted a wildly unflattering picture of how things operate in the secretariat, telling investigators of a culture which seemed designed to bamboozle superiors and “going to look for the worst in international finance and going into business with them.”

For his part, Peña Parra’s own deputy has said the archbishop ordered a retaliatory investigation into the IOR’s director for having the temerity to reject the Sloane Ave. mortgage application.

It is also emerged that a key secretariat official at the center of the London deal, and many others, had lucrative contracts with Swiss banks which paid him millions for steering Vatican business their way — the official has claimed the arrangement was known and approved by his departmental superiors and was considered a “fringe benefit” of his position.

Meanwhile, as questions were being asked about why the Vatican’s in house financial watchdog mysteriously failed to bark at the Secretariat of State’s dealings, it came out that ASIF’s president was being paid a lucrative second salary by the Secretariat of State to advise on its investments — what some people might call an obvious conflict of interest.

He, too, has claimed this was all known and approved of by everyone at the secretariat.

All of this is without touching the (erratic) testimony of Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, who worked for years at the secretariat, offered himself to prosecutors as a star witness, and has devolved into a mini-soap opera of his own.

The picture which emerges from all of these revelations is of a Secretariat of State riddled with dysfunction, unfit for purpose, and staffed by a rogues’ gallery — all on Parolin’s watch.

Whether any or all of this can be fairly attributed to Parolin’s active leadership is certainly open to argument. But in trying to excuse himself under cross examination, the cardinal will have to guard against suggesting it is all a result of an absence of leadership by him.

Man in the middle

While Parolin is almost certainly face some awkward questions about how his department is run, perhaps the most tricky part of his testimony will be framing his place in the complicated relationship between his former deputy, Cardinal Becciu, and Pope Francis.

On a range of issues, from the London deal to secret payments to his “private spy” Cecilia Margona, Becciu has tried to pass responsibility to Pope Francis — even to the point of trying to coach the pope into saying as much on tape.

As head of state, and the unified head of government for Vatican City, Francis can’t be a witness before a court that judges in his name and under his authority. As a result, Becciu’s narrative of wholesale papal approval has largely been left unanswered, to stand and fall on its own merits.

One option for Parolin when he comes to court would be for him to go in to bat for Francis, and push back on Becciu’s claims that he was just a humble servant doing the will of his superiors.

It’s also possible Parolin could want to claw back some credibility for himself and his department, portraying Becciu as a rogue actor who kept him and the pope functionally in the dark as he went about his business — a version of events the former auditor general, Libero Milone, has seemed already to endorse.

But Parolin might find it difficult to lay blame openly at the feet of a brother cardinal and publicly break with the kind of curial solidarity which has oiled the Vatican’s wheels of governance for centuries. And he might, perhaps justifiably, fear doing so would make him a target for Becciu’s legal defense.

He can, of course, try to stay out of it entirely. As sosituto, Becciu functioned as a kind of de facto papal chief of staff and had more daily face time with Francis than Parolin did. And it’s certainly not impossible — though hardly a sign of good governance — that Becciu did get Francis to green light a raft of projects without informing the Secretary of State.

At the same time, Cardinal Parolin has to be careful not to paint himself out of the picture of power in the Vatican.

Whatever his own private ambitions may be, more than a few around Rome continue to tout his candidacy ahead of the next conclave, whenever that may be. The case for Parolin, they argue, is a case for a safe pair of hands, someone intimately informed about how the Church works but above the fractious bickering which has surrounded the last several rounds of the synod of bishops — someone all sides can be comfortable going to to broker common sense compromises.

But weighing against the idea of a Pope Parolin, or “Peter the Roman” as some call the idea, is the debacle of the Vatican-China deal, of which he was the chief architect and remains the chief apologist, and increasingly, the courtroom drama which is all about how his department is run.

Although Cardinal Parolin is not on trial, fairly or unfairly, his reputation as an effective administrator is.

Parolin needs to somehow navigate the scandals of his department’s domestic brief without either taking personal responsibility for the alleged crimes of his subordinates, or appearing like he knew little and understood less of what was going on around him.

With the Secretariat of State’s foreign policy credibility already at a low ebb, a poor showing next month could leave him looking like a hollow figure at the top of the curial pecking order.

If that happens, it will leave some curial figures asking broader questions about which responsibilities are really best entrusted to Cardinal Parolin.

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