What happened: After four years of captivity, Sr. Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, a Colombian religious sister, was released by jihadist militants in Mali this month. Narváez’ release has refocused attention on Cecilia Marogna, the self-described private spy of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who allegedly worked to secure her freedom.
What’s new: While text messages from 2018 show Cardinal Becciu authorizing money transfers “in great secrecy” to Marogna, ostensibly to help secure the sister’s release, the Italian foreign ministry and intelligence services have taken credit for Narváez’ freedom. They have previously rejected claims that Marogna was a joint agent for the Vatican and Italian governments and said a proposed collaboration through her was fruitless.
Why it matters: With both Marogna and Becciu on trial for corruption in Vatican City, Marogna’s work for Becciu and the Vatican remains under a spotlight, with questions outstanding about what she did with the money she was paid, and why Becciu chose to use her to approach Italian secret services directly, instead of through the Vatican’s own security department.
Sr. Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, a Colombian religious sister, was abducted in 2017 by jihadist militants in Mali, the country where she had been serving as a missionary. After four years of captivity, her release was announced on October 9; she attended Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome the very next day.
Some news reports have credited Sr. Narváez’ freedom to Cecilia Marogna, who is now on trial in the Vatican and a self-professed “spy” for Cardinal Angelo Becciu.
But it is not clear whether Marogna actually played a role in securing the sister’s release from her kidnappers.
Sr. Narváez’ situation was first connected to Becciu and Marogna earlier this year.
On Jan. 18, the Associated Press reported that prosecutors were reviewing 2018 text messages which authorized wiring 75,000 euros from the Vatican to a company owned by Marogna, “because it seems something is starting to move” in the case of the kidnapped sister.
Becciu sent text messages to authorize the payments after the cardinal had left his position at the Secretariat of State, when he was no longer officially charged with involvement or oversight in the case.
In one text message, Becciu claimed that Pope Francis was aware of the wire transfers, but warned a subordinate that the matter should be treated “in great secrecy.”
Although the money was sent to Marogna, there is no evidence it helped make progress on the sister’s release, since Narváez remained in captivity for another three years.
During those years, Becciu and Marogna were indicted on charges of corruption and embezzlement, and Marogna has struggled to explain why she spent hundreds of thousands of euros sent to her by the Vatican on luxury hotels and designer label goods. Her Slovenian company has come under investigation by local authorities.
Marogna has said that she worked for the Vatican on sensitive diplomatic cases, like those of kidnapped clergy and religious, while also boasting of work as a kind of personal spy for Becciu, gathering dossiers of information on the private moral failings of other senior Church officials.
By the time Sr. Narváez’ release was announced, neither Becciu nor Marogna had any official role in the Vatican curia at all.
But after the sister’s release was announced, some media outlets have re-raised the 2018 texts, suggesting that Margona may have played an active role in negotiating release — which, if true, would seem to be a vindication of Marogna’s work with the Vatican.
But if Marogna was involved in the sister’s release, the Italian foreign ministry and intelligence services, who also claim credit, have not acknowledged Marogna’s role.
In a statement Saturday, the Italian foreign ministry claimed credit for the release, explaining that Italian intelligence agencies worked in concert with Malian and Colombian operatives to win Narváez’s freedom. No mention was made of Marogna or the Vatican Secretariat of State.
It is possible that the Vatican and Italian state were managing separate, parallel efforts to secure the nun’s release, and Marogna did contribute to the release, but the Italian government has in recent weeks denied claims that Marogna worked extensively as a joint secret agent for the Italian and Vatican governments.
Earlier this year, Marogna claimed to the Italian government and a Vatican court that she could not face trial in the Vatican because she had conducted intelligence work for the Vatican and Italian governments, and could not defend herself in court because of state secrecy.
But the Italian government in July clarified to the Vatican court that Marogna’s trial could proceed, since she had no involvement in secret work for the state, and was not impeded from defending herself in court.
There was a brief collaboration in 2017, according to a report from the Italian Department of Security Information released in September.
According to a report from the Italian intelligence service, Marogna had presented herself in 2017 with a letter of introduction from Becciu, who suggested Vatican-Italian collaboration, through Marogna, on issues that would include the release of kidnapped religious.
The Italian agency quickly closed its file on Marogna because the proposed collaboration had proved fruitless, according to the Huffington Post.
For his part, Becciu has not explained why he employed Marogna directly, or why he was still authorizing payments to her after he left his post at the Secretariat of State in June 2018. He has also not responded to her claims to have worked to compile reports on the moral lives of other Vatican officials.
But the cardinal’s effort to use Marogna as a connection to Italian intelligence services raises additional questions about his compliance with Vatican policy, because the ordinary means of cooperation between the Vatican and foreign security services is through the Vatican gendarmerie, which operates both as the Vatican City’s domestic police force and its intelligence service.