Becciu blames Pope Francis, staff, bad memory in Vatican trial
News: Vatican Finances
Cardinal Angelo Becciu appeared again before the Vatican City court on Wednesday, responding to questions from judges and prosecutors for more than eight hours.
Confronted with a litany of messages he sent and official documents bearing his signature, Becciu sought to answer questions about decisions he made during his tenure as sostituto, frequently blaming his departmental staff, citing lapses in his own memory, or passing responsibility to Pope Francis.
The disgraced cardinal told the court May 18 that it was Pope Francis who made the decision to fire the Vatican’s first auditor general, Libero Milone, in 2017, and asked Becciu to get rid of the auditor as a “thankless task.”
In June of 2017, Becciu said, he was called to a meeting with the pope and instructed to tell Milone that “as of today he no longer enjoys the Holy Father's confidence” and that “he must resign.”
On June 18 of that year, Milone’s offices were raided by Vatican police and Milone was interrogated for nearly 12 hours, after which he resigned. Milone said at the time that he was compelled to resign and threatened with criminal prosecution by Becciu if he did not.
Becciu had previously told the court that he would not discuss the details of Milone’s ousting out of “love for the pope,” but answered freely on Wednesday after Francis dispensed him from the pontifical secret last month.
While Becciu crediting Francis with approving Milone’s firing was greeted as a revelation in many reports on the case, it was actually widely known and understood at the time. Milone’s office, established by Francis in the first years of his papacy, was given total independence from, and power to investigate, all other curial offices.
Since he reported directly to the pope, only the pope had the power to approve Milone’s dismissal by Becciu in 2017, and in his 2017 Christmas address to the curia, Francis made a thinly-veiled reference to Milone’s sacking 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.”
In a public statement at the time of Milone’s resignation, Becciu confirmed that Milone had been threatened with prosecution and said that Milone “went against all the rules and was spying on the private lives of his superiors and staff, including me.” “If he had not agreed to resign, we would have prosecuted him.”
Since the time of his firing, Milone has said that he and his team were targeted by the Secretariat of State because they were uncovering financial misconduct in the department.
Attempts to audit hundreds of millions of departmental investments were rebuffed by Becciu and, Milone has said, “we were never given the details,” and that “we had come across something we shouldn’t have seen.”
Becciu’s account in court highlights a difficult period in Francis’ efforts to reform curial finances, which was a hallmark of his early pontificate but which he later appeared to undermine, repeatedly siding with Becciu and the Secretariat of State against the efforts of his own appointees.
In addition to creating the office of Auditor General, Francis also created the Secretariat for the Economy in 2014, installing Cardinal George Pell as its first prefect.
After finding hundreds of millions of euros of investments kept off central departmental ledgers, Pell’s department contracted with the international accounting firm and management consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers to perform a curia-wide audit of all departments, including the Secretariat of State.
Although Pell’s department had total autonomy, and a remit covering all Vatican departments, in 2016 Becciu circulated a memo canceling the audit, despite his not having the legal authority to do so. According to several sources at the Secretariat for the Economy, when Pell’s department challenged the move, Becciu persuaded Pope Francis to authorize the cancellation after-the-fact.
After officials in the Vatican prosecutor’s office and the IOR, a Vatican Bank, presented Francis with evidence of potential financial malfeasance at the Secretariat of State in 2019, the pope authorized an investigation into the department, eventually sacking Becciu from his curial positions in 2020, at which time Cardinal Pell praised the pope for “playing a long game” in bringing about financial reform.
Also during the court hearing on Wednesday, Becciu was presented with a series of financial contracts and other documents bearing his signature from the Secretariat of State related to investments.
When asked to explain or contextualize the documents, which in some cases authorized significant investments by the Vatican department, Becciu repeatedly answered “I don't know,” and “I don't remember,” and blamed the “stress” of the trial for affecting his memory.
Becciu insisted that he signed “hundreds of papers” during his time as sostituto, and it was the “moral responsibility” of Msgr. Alberto Perlasca (the former head of the secretariat’s administrative office and prosecution star witness) and his officials to ensure everything was in order and not to “create problems for [him], or make [him] look bad.”
With specific reference to the decision to invest some 200 million euros with the investment manager Raffaele Mincione which ended in the purchase of the London building at 60 Sloane Ave., Becciu said that he was presented with “a proposal that was totally advantageous for the Holy See” but explaining the details of the deal was “difficult for [Becciu], also because it was [the administrative office’s] task.” The Holy See posted an eventual loss on the deal in excess of 100 million euros.
When confronted with a message exchange between him and Perlasca discussing specific concerns related to Mincione and Gianluigi Torzi, the broker accused of extorting the Vatican for millions in the final stages of the London deal, Becciu’s lawyers protested that the text exchange had been taken from a seized computer and not presented in evidence. However, prosecutors demonstrated that the exchange was in the evidence turned over to the defense.
Becciu also faced uncomfortable questions about his role in presenting an offer from a group of investors in 2020 to buy the London building from the Vatican after the deal had been flagged to prosecutors and an investigation was underway.
Becciu presented the plan to Pope Francis, stressing the “seriousness” of the people involved, and asked Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin to meet with some of the people involved.
The deal was rejected after Fr. Juan Guerrero Alves SJ, Pell’s successor as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, raised concerns about the proposal. It was subsequently revealed that the proposal was being organized through a company controlled by Gianluigi Torzi, who was already under investigation for fraud and extortion for his role in the Vatican’s purchase of the building in the first place.
Becciu denied any knowledge of Torzi’s involvement in the proposal and said he had presented it in good faith.
The cardinal was also asked Wednesday about allegations he encouraged Gianluigi Torzi not to show up to a meeting with Vatican investigators in June 2020, shortly after the proposal to buy the building back was rejected.
Becciu was asked if he had made the suggestion that Torzi no-show the meeting at which he was arrested in Vatican City, through Marco Simeon, a mutual friend of Becciu and Torzi, often referred to in the Italian press as “Becciu’s lobbyist,” and also a part of the buy-back proposal.
"Simeon wrote me that Torzi was afraid,” Becciu told the court. “I just threw [the idea] out there like that not to go,” said the cardinal, but stressed it was just an “informal” suggestion.
The cardinal similarly offered context for a message sent by WhatsApp to Enrico Crasso — another former Secretariat of State investment manager on trial — telling him that “a good press campaign will have to be made” to “debunk” the Vatican prosecution’s case “when the time is right.”
Becciu told Crasso his lawyers should look into the possibility of coordinating favorable media coverage for the defendants “right away.”
Asked if he had helped arrange such media coverage, Becciu told the court that Crasso was “a desperate man” and he was only trying to encourage him to “defend yourself as [best] you can.”
Becciu returns to court Thursday, May 19.