Can Becciu’s defense hold up in court?

Analysis

Pre-trial court hearings in the Vatican’s financial scandal hearings are set to resume in the Vatican this week after a break of more than a month since the last session of court. 

While lawyers and judges are likely to focus on arguments of process and procedure as the court enters its third sitting, they will eventually have to shift to the actual substance of the case. 

When they do, the defendants, including Cardinal Angelo Becciu, will finally have the chance to answer the range of charges against them — but they may have to face some awkward questions in the process.

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When last the court met in October, prosecutors agreed to reopen their  investigation into some of the charges against Becciu and other businessmen charged with financial crimes related to the Secretariat of State’s ill-fated acquisition of a London building in 2018.

The judges also again ordered prosecutors to turn over hours of tape recordings of statements by witnesses made during the investigation, most notably by Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, Becciu’s former deputy at the secretariat and key whistleblower for the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice’s office. Those tapes were deposited earlier this month, with some redactions related to other ongoing investigations.

While both those developments are significant, they are unlikely to mark an end to the procedural wrangling which has characterized the hearings thus far, and lawyers for the defence often seem more eager to dispute the legal premise of the trial itself, rather than rebut individual charges, perhaps with good reason. 

The star defendant in the trial is, without doubt, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who was forced to resign his curial offices and cardinalatial rights by the pope last year. He faces charges of embezzlement, abuse of office, and witness tampering. 

The latter charge is reportedly related to attempts Becciu allegedly made to induce Perlasca to walk back some of his statements to prosecutors, and was the subject of a successful defense appeal that he had not been given the chance to explain his actions on the record pre-trial.

Regarding the financial dealings of his former department, most especially the London property deal and the secretariat’s tangled relationship with the businessmen around it, Becciu has, for two years, insisted that he is innocent of any wrongdoing — though he has shifted his footing as he does so, and may find himself in an awkward position when the time eventually comes to answer detailed questions about his tenure as sostituto. 

When the story first broke in the Autumn of 2019, the cardinal insisted that the acquisition of the London building, which began with a 45% stake taken through a fund in which the secretariat invested hundreds of millions of euros borrowed against Holy See funds, was entirely above board, and any suggestions of impropriety around the deal were unfounded. 

At that time, Becciu called the investments “accepted practice” and said that the way in which the building was bought - involving a train of nested holding companies in the Channel Islands and Luxembourg - was “regular and registered according to law.”

Since then, that narrative has come under heavy fire and Becciu is now distancing himself from responsibility for the deal he authorized and initially defended. Previous reporting has shown that the Holy See’s original investment was made in a way designed to evade in-house Vatican financial oversight mechanisms, and charges have now been brought that the final purchase of the building was fraudulent and deliberating structured in a way to expose the Vatican to extortion by its designated middle-man, Gianluigi Torzi.

Torzi, who is himself facing charges in the Vatican and Italy, has defended himself, producing documents apparently showing that each stage of the deal was approved by senior Vatican officials. 

The Vatican has since pivoted, claiming that they were deceived and given deliberately misleading legal and investment advice on the soundness of the deal. This weekend, through his lawyers, Becciu said that he relied on an assistant in his former department, who was in charge of evaluating proposed investments, including the London deal, which — he now claims, — was approved and completed by other Vatican officials.

The emerging defensive strategy for Becciu appears to be to argue that he was a middleman in his own former department, relying on approval from his superiors and advice from his subordinates, with little personal understanding or responsibility for the complicated financial dealings of the office he oversaw, dealings which have now lost the Vatican hundreds of millions of euros.

That narrative may prove an effective media strategy, but it may prove less effective under close questioning in court.

While it is plausible that senior clerical officials were effectively hoodwinked by predatory businessmen, pleas that Becciu was unaware of anything suspicious going on under his nose do not match up with his own actions at the time.

It was Becciu who, as sostituto, was repeatedly and famously at loggerheads with the Secretariat for the Economy and the Vatican’s Office of the Auditor General, departments led, until 2017, by Cardinal George Pell and Libero Milone. 

Previous reporting has established that Becciu’s department went to considerable lengths to resist scrutiny of their assets, investment portfolio and outstanding loans, and both Pell and Milone have subsequently confirmed that they were blocked from examining the investments around the London deal. 

Shortly after Pell took a leave of absence to return to Australia, in 2017 Becciu forced Milone to resign or face prosecution on charges of “spying” on his private financial dealings. 

It may be difficult for Becciu to reconcile for the court his claims that he was unaware of anything questionable about his department’s financial dealings even as he went to such apparently extreme lengths to fend off scrutiny of them. 

Becciu was also part of a last-ditch effort to have the building bought back from the secretariat in 2020, presenting and recommending the proposal within the Vatican, despite having moved to lead the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 2018. 

Why the cardinal would take such a personal and involved interest in a deal which, he now claims, wasn’t really his to begin with is not clear, though Vatican prosecutors allege it was a last-ditch effort to unload the building without registering a loss in order to prevent further investigation of the deal. 

Becciu having to answer detailed questions about his personal involvement in that plan, and his continuing role in the finances of his former department, even after he was moved, could prove awkward for the cardinal. Questions in court would also likely include his authorizing payment to Cecilia Marogna, a self-described “security consultant” and political analyst who has been charged by the Vatican with embezzlement.

Becciu’s relationship with Marogna will be a point of special interest during any testimony he may be asked to give in court: she has claimed that, in addition to negotiating the release of hostages for the Vatican, she was charged by Becciu with compiling dossiers of compromising information on other senior Vatican officials. 

If confronted in court with Marogna’s statements about her work for him, Becciu may try to dismiss her claims as a fabrication, but that could prove difficult to do convincingly. After being forced out of his position as auditor general by Becciu, Milone has repeatedly said that he complained to Vatican law enforcement about electronic surveillance of his Vatican offices but that the gendarmes were blocked from investigating the source of the bugging.

Since the day after his forced resignation in September 2020, Becciu has presented himself in public as a humble curial employee and a devoted aide to Pope Francis, incapable of corruption and surprised by the revelations of misconduct taking place around him.

When he is eventually called to answer the charges against him in detail, though, a very different Cardinal Becciu may emerge from the evidence. His lawyers could face an uphill struggle, as they aim to convince the judges that the cardinal in the center of a maelstrom is really just a simple civil servant, aiming to serve only the Church.

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