Defense team cannot be trusted with video recordings, Vatican prosecutors argue

News: Vatican finances

Lawyers and prosecutors in the Vatican financial trial are locked in a procedural dispute over the prosecution’s refusal to turn over copies of audio and video recordings of witness statements.

With prosecutors citing privacy concerns and the possibility of leaks, the outcome could determine how much evidence from the landmark trial actually makes it into the public domain.

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The exchanges between lawyers on both sides with the court follows the opening of the landmark trial on July 27.

Ten defendants, including Cardinal Angelo Becciu and several former officials and advisors to the Secretariat of State, are facing charges of fraud, abuse of office, embezzlement, and money laundering.

The trial is the first of its kind in the modern era, with Cardinal Becciu the first cardinal to go on trial for Vatican financial crimes since the 18th century. The trial comes after years of media reporting on Vatican financial scandals, and is widely seen as a test of the raft of financial reforms issued by Pope Francis earlier this year.

After requests from defense lawyers for several defendants, on Monday Giuseppe Pignatone, the chief judge of the Vatican City tribunal, ordered the office of the Promoter of Justice — the Vatican City prosecutor —  to turn over evidence and witness statements gathered during the two-year investigation into alleged financial crimes committed by the 10 individuals now on trial.

Later that day, prosecutors filed an eight-page opinion to the court, agreeing to turn over the majority of the requested files or noting that the evidence requested had already been deposited with the court, including electronic copies of information from Swiss authorities acting on official requests from the Vatican.

However, prosecutors argued that they should not be obliged to give defense attorneys video and audio copies of hours of testimony made by Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, a former senior official at the Secretariat of State and key witness for the prosecution.

Defense attorneys do have signed summary accounts of the testimony obtained from Perlasca and other witnesses, which will constitute the actual evidence under consideration by the court. 

In fact, prosecutors argued this week that the defense had already been provided with summary statements of the video evidence, signed by the witnesses. They also said it is possible for defense lawyers to review audio and video recordings, but drew the line at handing full copies into their possession. 

In February 2020, Perlasca’s home and office were raided by Vatican police over his work on the London property deal which triggered the 2019 investigation and led to the current trial. 

Since then, Perlasca has given a number of voluntary interviews to prosecutors, apparently recorded on video, in which, prosecutors contend, he laid out the network of financial dealings and decision making at the secretariat and allowed for the construction of much of the case now being heard by the court.

Lawyers for several defendants, including Cardinal Becciu, initially argued that Perlasca’s statements to investigators should be ruled inadmissible since the former official was questioned without a lawyer present. That plea was rejected by the court, after prosecutors said that Perlasca presented himself for questioning voluntarily, and had not been interrogated as a suspect.

But in response to Monday’s judicial order to turn over the tapes of Perlasca’s testimony, the prosecutors argued that the recordings should be kept confidential and that copies should not be made available to the defense lawyers. 

“There is an obligation to note in advance how the deposit of the [full video] materials in question is susceptible to subsequent disclosure with consequent potential serious and irreparable damage to the rights of the persons who participated in the proceedings,” they argued in a filing dated Aug. 9.

Citing aspects of the Italian criminal code, which in some circumstances can be cited in Vatican City proceedings, prosecutors argued that the use of video and audio recordings of Perlasca and others who came forward voluntarily was subject to their express consent and that they did so only for the purposes of ensuring the accuracy of the summary statements prepared for their signature. 

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“Those who attended the investigative proceedings did not consent to the reproduction and disclosure in any form of the files containing the recordings,” they argued, and said that “in the absence of any limit to the possible subsequent disclosure, in this way the right to privacy of the information would be irreparably compromised for the people involved.”

Prosecutors told the court that if full audio and video files were turned over to defense lawyers, there was no way of preventing the recordings, or selected parts of the recordings, from being used to discredit voluntary witnesses, whose signed statements were already part of the evidence on record with the court.

Prosecutors instead offered that the defense lawyers be allowed to view the recordings at the seat of the Vatican City court, but not be given their own copies, a measure which has recently been adopted by Italian courts for handling sensitive evidence.

For more than a year, different media outlets have carried reports of allegations and evidence apparently presented during the investigation, with the reports appearing to come from both prosecution and defense lawyers at different times. However, the concerns for the rights of cooperating witnesses has now become a more sensitive issue.

On the same day that the trial formally opened in the Vatican, Cardinal Becciu announced that he intends to file lawsuits for defamation against Perlasca and Francesca Chaouqui, another former Vatican official who gave statements to investigators about the cardinal’s involvement in Vatican financial affairs. Chaouqui was tried and convicted by a Vatican court in 2016 for leaking confidential documents to journalists during the so-called Vatileaks 2.0 scandal.

If the full video depositions of Perlasca and Chaouqui were made available to the defense team, it is possible these could be used as evidence in the defamation suits.

Lawyers for the defense issued statements to Italian media on Tuesday reacting to the prosecution’s argument and accusing them of defying the court order to turn over the evidence.

Lawyers for Fabrizio Tirabassi, a former lay official at the Secretariat of State charged with corruption, extortion, embezzlement, fraud and abuse of office, called the prosecution’s refusal to immediately hand over the recordings “surprising and unique in the history of criminal trials,” and dismissed their arguments as “specious.” 

Lawyers for Cardinal Becciu called on the Promoter of Justice’s office to comply with the judges original order which, they said, “must be respected and executed in its entirety."

Hearings in the trial are set to resume on October 5.