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At Vatican trial, the limits of prosecution as PR

The sprawling Vatican financial scandal trial is now in its third year. 

But after dozens of hearings and weeks of arguments, the legal process has entered its final phase, with the prosecution having rested and lawyers for the ten defendants each now taking their turn to poke the best holes they can in the cases against their clients.

In the weeks to come, some of those lawyers may find that their most defense is to attack not the facts of the case, but another target — an emerging perception that the Vatican’s prosecutors has focused on winning headlines, rather than cases. 

Judges hear arguments during the Vatican financial trial. Credit: Vatican Media

With the judges set to close proceedings and consider their verdict in just two months, it’s possible they’ll find themselves asking if Alessandro Diddi, the man making the Vatican’s case, has tailored the charges to fit the evidence, or to push a dramatic narrative aimed to justify the international attention his investigation has attracted.

If they decide it’s the latter, the landmark trial could collapse into a farce, not for lack of evidence, but for an unwillingness by prosecutors to take seriously the mundane details of proving financial corruption.


Last week, lawyers for Ceclia Marogna took their turn to present a defense. 

Marogna is wholly disconnected to the London property deal which is the supposed focus of the current trial. Nevertheless, she has become the face of the trial for many court-watchers and a point of fascination for secular media.

She’s described herself as a geo-political analyst and a security consultant who secured a position as a kind of private spy for Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the trial’s star defendant. 

She got that position, she has said, simply by writing to the cardinal and offering her services. 

According to what has been argued in court — and just as often in the Italian press — Becciu instructed his former deputy at the Secretariat of State to pay hundreds of thousands of euros to Marogna’s Solvenian holding company without explaining what or who the money was for. 

Much of that money, it has been alleged, was spent on luxury hotels and designer fashion items — a narrative Marogna herself has appeared to accept and defend, while both she and the cardinal also insist she was working on Becciu’s orders to secretly broker the release of a kidnapped Colombian nun.

The claim that Marogna helped to broker the release of a nun has been rejected by state intelligence agencies actually involved in that nun’s release.

But the narrative of a papally sanctioned black-ops program under Becciu has consumed the trial, and coverage of it — including Becciu’s unsuccessful efforts to entrap Pope Francis into personally vouching for it and Diddi’s insinuations of a more personal relationship between Becciu and Marogna.

The spy story of the cardinal and “his lady” has made for courtroom drama, and for Diddi it has led to frenzied coverage of the case as a legal soap-opera. 

But it has, as Marogna’s lawyers argued last week, not stacked up well in court against the actual charges filed against her.

Marogna has been charged with the specific crime of embezzlement in the trial. But, as her lawyers argued last Thursday, she was not employed as a public official at the Secretariat of State, arguably making her ineligible to have committed that particular crime.

Whether Becciu was acting outside of his authority, or with secret and unsubstantiated papal approval, in sending more than half a million euros to her company may be of material interest in the case against the cardinal — who is charged with embezzlement, conspiracy, and abuse of office. But no evidence has been presented to suggest Marogna acted in an official role for the Holy See, rather than as a private contractor. 

As such, she wasn’t in a position, her team argued, to embezzle Church funds. Instead she received money from a Swiss bank account to her company through transfers authorized by a Church official — Becciu.

“Very probably, when this whole round of money was organized, starting it from an account registered in the name of a person who managed unofficial money from the Secretariat of Vatican State,” her lawyer told the judges, “it was probably thought to protect someone by structuring everything with companies that did not fall within the scope of the public official.”

It’s not an unreasonable argument.

“But what if someone [Becciu] stole money from the Secretariat of State to support Marogna?” the lawyer asked. “Let's take this version... let's accept it [for the sake of argument]: but this certainly doesn't depend on Marogna. to Marogna the money arrived legitimately in the company's account complete with bank transfer.”

As has been noted by the more forensic followers of the trial, Marogna could have been charged with fraud, had she taken the money under false pretenses and used it for other purposes than she had agreed to. 

But that isn’t the charge Diddi’s office has made. 

Instead, the Vatican prosecutors have opted in their indictment to treat all of the external contractors and advisors around the Secretariat of State as Vatican state officials and participants in a grand conspiracy to defraud the Holy See, in league with actual state officials like Cardinal Becciu.

And while the defense-phase of the hearings is only just beginning, Marogna’s lawyers are not the first to argue for the judges to dismiss the Vatican prosecutors’ more tenuous allegations. 

Earlier this month, lawyers for APSA, the Holy See’s sovereign asset manager, similarly argued that the case against Marogna was thin, at best, and a distraction from the evidence — even as they argued for Becciu to be convicted and jailed on a range of other, unrelated financial crimes.

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The “vast network of relationships” alleged by Diddi is meant to draw together dozens of different instances of apparent financial malpractice or corruption into one grand conspiracy. But sustaining that narrative has proven easier in casual secular media coverage than in court.

At times, as The Pillar has noted repeatedly in its own coverage, two very different trials appear to have been playing out: One centered on fiscal data about Vatican investment projects, and the other on the stuff of soap operas – personality conflicts, conspiracy theories, and an emotional courtroom confrontations between Diddi and the defendants.

Questions have been asked repeatedly about Diddi’s legal strategy, and his motivations for pressing the charge of one big conspiracy.

Many close to the defendants' legal teams have suggested that Diddi is set on living up to his case’s popular billing as the “trial of the century.”

Some have even told The Pillar that they offered to help Diddi prove his case against other defendants, but were rebuffed by the prosecutor.

“It is all or nothing with this guy,” one senior figure on the defense told The Pillar recently. “[Diddi] has problems. He doesn’t want to prove some crimes happened, or convict some Vatican officials of corruption, he wants to prove his conspiracy theory.”

Others close to the prosecutor’s office have a more sympathetic but still critical assessment of Diddi’s efforts, suggesting that he is effectively trying the same strategies as a prosecutor that served him well as a defense lawyer.

Before his Vatican appointment, Diddi was the lead defense lawyer in a landmark mafia trial which pitted him against the then-Roman public prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone, now the chief judge in the Vatican trial.

Diddi had considerable success quashing some of his high profile client’s convictions, and getting sentences reduced. But a style well-suited to creating reasonable, even compelling suspicions and doubts does not lend itself easily to proving the minutiae of specific crimes, — proof needed to secure convictions in complicated cases.

One source close to the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy told The Pillar that “Diddi’s great gift is creating a fumo, a cloud you cannot see through. The problem is he can’t find the fire himself.”

For many around the trial, it is an increasingly persuasive explanation for why Diddi chose to charge ten people simultaneously in a nearly 500 page indictment covering a wide range of often unrelated alleged crimes, instead of charging individuals with specific crimes in separate cases.

Whether the judges can look through the smoke of the two-and-a-half years of courtroom theatrics remains to be seen. 

Even if they do find clear evidence of criminal action in the case, their final verdicts may hang on whether Diddi has understood the crimes, and laid his charges accordingly.

The success of Diddi’s case will ultimately hinge not on a compelling narrative of a grand conspiracy, but on the diligent presentation of facts pointing to specific crimes. 

There is a case there to be made, but it is not clear if he’s been able to do that work, or whether he’d be happy with the results if he did.

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