It was a very big day in the Vatican City’s courtroom Thursday, as Pope Francis released some letters between himself and Cardinal Angelo Becciu pertaining to London property investments, and Becciu’s “private spy,” Cecilia Marogna.
A full story follows below, which explains what’s in the letters, and some other big things that happened in the Vatican City’s courtroom this week.
But the texts themselves are a bit “spicy,” as the kids say — and they offer a fascinating look at how business gets done - or doesn’t - at the highest levels of the Church.
The Pillar brings you excerpts (translations are our own).
'Strange in terms of content'
On July 21, 2021, Pope Francis replied to a letter he’d gotten from Becciu one day earlier. The pope express strong reservations about some plans presented by Cardinal Becciu, and here are some highlights:
I reply to your letter dated July 20 of this year, which surprised me. Given that I do not intend to enter into the purposes underlying your statements and your consequent procedural "strategies", I must however clarify, in a spirit of truth, the following:
a- With reference to the proposal to purchase the London property from the Honorable Giancarlo Innocenti Botti, which you spoke to me about during a hearing specifically requested of me, I recall that this proposal immediately struck me as strange in terms of content, the forms and times chosen; to the point that, not having other elements of evaluation, I suggested that a prior consultation be carried out with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and with Father Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, Prefect of the SPE, for the insights of their respective competences. In fact, it was necessary to clarify the contents and prospects of this operation.
I must also add that my original perplexity was further strengthened when I understood that the initiative in question was, among other things, aimed at interfering, with impeding effects, with the investigations of the Office of the Promoter of Justice. The overall assessment of these elements led me to express myself in a negative sense on the continuation of the initiative.
Another element that is presented with your letter is the confirmation of papal secrecy in relation to the Mali affair and that of Slovenia, which saw the disbursement of capital from the Secretariat of State to a company incorporated there.
As a preliminary point, I must point out the substantial difference between the two cases. The first, in fact, concerns institutional activities carried out by competent people of undoubted professionalism in the context of their respective roles; the second, as you well know, is characterized by extemporaneous and incautious assignments of financial resources diverted from the typical purposes and intended, according to the indictment theses, to satisfy personal voluptuous inclinations.
In this context, you will understand well how it is not possible to affix any pontifical secret.
Leaving aside other profiles, I defer to you the assessment of which prospecting to go for objectively for the benefit of the Holy See. This is what I remember and can confirm, don't forget to pray for me; I do it for you. May the Lord bless you and Our Lady keep you.
'I should cite you as a witness'
On July 24, 2021, Cardinal Becciu sent Pope Francis a note in which he tried to convince the pope to rescind some prior correspondence, and release him from the pontifical secret to discuss controversial issues in court.
Becciu even gave the pope some draft documents to sign, which he believed would help clear his name in court.
Thank you so much for tonight's phone call. It felt like a real father willing to listen to a son's pain. Very simply, I summarize the question here. I am accused by the Magistrates of having cheated you both in the story of the Colombian nun, kidnapped in Mali, and in the purchase proposal of the Palace of London that I presented to you on behalf of an American Fund.
I should cite you as a witness in the trial, but I wouldn't allow myself to do so, however I need two statements from you to confirm how the facts occurred (see Attachments). At the same time, I am sending you the letter you wrote to me so that you can add this simple note: "please disregard this letter which I consider null" with your signature and date. Then be kind enough to get it back to me so that I can keep it to show it in court if necessary. Regarding the question of the release of the Colombian nun, I feel tied to the State Secret for reasons of international security, but you tell me if I have to consider it as such or if you release me from it and leave me free to answer any question that will be asked of me in Court.
Deeply grateful for your attention, I assure you of my prayers.
[Draft] 1. Release of the hostage: I declare that H.E. Mons. Angelo Becciu, then Substitute of the Secretariat of State, was authorized by me to proceed for the release of Sister Gloria Narváez Argoti, of Colombian nationality. To this end he was authorized to travel to London to contact a specialized brokerage agency. I declare that I have approved the sum necessary to pay the intermediaries and the one fixed for the ransom. For the entire operation I requested absolute confidentiality and secrecy and when H.E. Msgr. Peña Parra took on the role of Substitute, I took care to inform him and authorize him to follow the procedure.
[Draft] 2. Offer Palace of London: I declare that in June 2020 Cardinal Angelo Becciu came to me to report a proposal, received from the Hon. Giancarlo Innocenzi Botti, relating to the Real Estate located in London. Considering the proposal interesting, I asked the cardinal to refer it to the Rev. Father Guerrero Alves, Prefect of Spes, and to H.E. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, for the assessments of their respective competence, deferring to their judgment.
In a final letter, Pope Francis let Becciu know he was never going to sign those declarations.
Dear brother, I believed, with the first letter dated July 21st in response - I hoped definitively - to your letter of 20 July, to have clarified, in the spirit of truth, my negative position on the declarations you intend to have me sign:
1) hostage release;
2) offer of the London building by Innocenzi Botti.
Evidently and surprisingly, I was misunderstood by you. In particular, regarding the opposition of the bond of secrecy, I reiterate that the assignment of money to an intermediary, due to the opaque aspects that emerged according to the accusation thesis, cannot be covered by a State Secret for security reasons, nor susceptible to affixing of the papal secret. Therefore, I regret to inform you that I cannot comply with your request to formally declare "nulla" and therefore to "disregard" the letter I had written to you, tantum veritatem prae oculis habens and which I am sending you again. I hope you can understand and accept the spirit of truth that guides my decision.
May the Lord bless you and Our Lady keep you.
Pope Francis released to the Vatican City court Thursday letters exchanged between himself and Cardinal Angelo Becciu related to the London property scandal and money paid to Cecelia Marogna, the so-called “private-spy” employed by the cardinal.
In the letters, which Vatican prosecutors presented to the court on March 9, and dated just days before the opening of the trial in July 2021, Francis told the cardinal that a plan Becciu made to sell the Vatican’s London property was “aimed at interfering” with a Vatican criminal investigation.
The pope also told Becciu in a letter, dated July 21, that the cardinal’s business dealings with Cecelia Marogna could not be covered by state secrecy and kept out of court.
The letters shed new light on attempts by Becciu to shield his actions in office from legal scrutiny, and head off attempts by Vatican City prosecutors to bring charges against him in court.
In the first of three letters given to the court by Pope Francis, the pope explains to Becciu that, having received a previous request from the cardinal to excuse him from being questioned in court, “I do not intend to enter into the purposes underlying your statements and your consequent procedural ‘strategies’.”
Instead, the pope wrote that he needed to “clarify” several points “in the spirit of truth.”
Francis told Becciu that when the cardinal presented a bid from a consortium of businessmen to buy the London building from the Vatican for its original purchase price: “I recall that this proposal immediately struck me as strange in terms of content, the forms and times chosen.”
“I must also add that my original perplexity was further strengthened when I understood that the initiative in question was, among other things, aimed at interfering, with impeding effects, with the investigations of the Office of the Promoter of Justice,” Francis said. “The overall assessment of these elements led me to express myself in a negative sense on the continuation of the initiative.”
The pope went on to explain separately that Becciu’s dealings with Cecelia Marogna could not be covered by the pontifical secret, despite the cardinal's request to that effect.
Marogna has claimed she produced dossiers on the private lives of curial officials for Becciu, in addition to working with foreign intelligence services and engaging in hostage negotiations on the Vatican’s behalf. She is also a defendant in the current trial, accused of embezzlement.
Becciu has previously argued that Marogna’s work, for which he ordered hundreds of thousands of euros paid to her Slovenian-registered company, was connected to the freeing of a kidnapped nun in Mali — though that claim is disputed by Italian intelligence services.
The cardinal also offered to reimburse the Holy See personally for the money he had sent to Marogna, according to testimony heard during the current trial.
In his letter to Becciu, Francis explained that there is a “substantial difference between the two cases” of the freeing of the kidnapped religious sister, and Becciu’s payments to Marogna’s company.
“The first, in fact, concerns institutional activities carried out by competent people of undoubted professionalism in the context of their respective roles; the second [the payments to Marogna’s company], as you well know, is characterized by extemporaneous and incautious assignments of financial resources diverted from the typical purposes and intended, according to the [prosecutors’ indictment], to satisfy personal voluptuous inclinations.”
“In this context,” Francis told Becciu, “you will understand well how it is not possible to affix any pontifical secret.”
In another letter Pope Francis gave the court - written by Becciu - the cardinal asked the pope to annul his July 21 letter.
In the same text, Becciu asked the pope to sign a statement affirming that he referred the bid to buy the London property to the Secretariat of State and the Secretariat of the Economy for consideration.
Becciu also attached a second statement for the pope to sign, affirming that the pontifical secret was in operation regarding all matters related to the kidnapped religious sister in Mali — implicitly including his dealings with Marogna.
“I should cite you as a witness in the trial,” Becciu told Francis in the letter, “but I wouldn't allow myself to do so, however I need [these] two statements from you to confirm how the facts occurred.”
In a third letter given to the court, Francis responded to Becciu’s requests, saying that he had no intention of retracting his previous letter or signing Becciu’s statements.
“Evidently and surprisingly, I was misunderstood by you,” Francis wrote.
“Therefore, I regret to inform you that I cannot comply with your request.”
Francis closed the third letter by attaching his previous letter, for the purposes of clarity.
The emergence of the exchange between the pope and the cardinal marks an extraordinary development in the already landmark trial. The letters outline the extent to which Becciu attempted to pressure the pope into shielding him from answering questions in court.
Previously the court had heard how Becciu attempted in the same period of time to trick Francis into affirming the cardinal’s version of events on a phone call which he was secretly recording.
The pope's decision to make the letters available to the court now, more than a year and a half into the legal proceedings, will be taken by many trial-watchers as a sign of Francis’ shortening patience with Becciu, who has continued to request private audiences with the pope, and follow them up with public statements insisting on Francis’ personal support for his cause.
Becciu was sacked from his curial positions by Francis in September, 2020, after the pope was presented with the initial findings of investigators into the cardinal’s financial dealings. Becciu was formally charged, along with nine other defendants in July 2021.
The cardinal, who until June 2018 served as sostituto at the Secretary of State and de facto papal chief of staff, faces a number of charges on several issues unrelated to Marogna or the London property deal. The cardinal is also accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of euros in Church funds by funneling them into bank accounts controlled by members of his immediate family.
The cardinal denies all allegations against him. In February he released a statement after an audience with Francis, in which Becciu claimed that “the Holy Father renewed his esteem and trust in me, as has been the case for some time now.”
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The submission of papal letters to the court on Thursday came after dramatic hearings the previous day, during which three witnesses scheduled to give evidence failed to appear, including the brother of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, and the architect who was for a time in singular control of the London property at the center of the trial.
While neither of the two men are defendants in the Vatican trial, both are under criminal investigation in Sardinia on related charges, which likely explains their absence from the Vatican courtroom.
The court met March 8 expecting to hear testimony from Antonio Becciu, brother of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, former sostituto at the Secretariat of State, along with Fr. Mario Curzu of Becciu’s home diocese in Sardinia.
But instead of their appearence in court, a lawyer read out a statement on behalf of both men, which seeemed to suggest that if the men gave at the Vatican, they might incriminate themselves in Sardinia.
The lawyer's statement explained that the Vatican legal process did not offer his clients sufficient “guarantees” about their participation in the trial.
Cardinal Becciu, in addition to charges of abuse of office and subornation of witnesses, is accused in the Vatican trial of embezzlement, including through the funneling of a total 250,000 euros in Church funds sent to bank accounts controlled by his brother, ostensibly meant for the Spes Coperative, a charity in Sardinia, and the local branch of Caritas.
Cardinal Becciu told the court earlier this year that it was “normal practice” for him to wire hundreds of thousands of euros from Vatican accounts to the personal bank accounts of family members and that he “never wanted a euro, not even a cent, that [he] had managed or even just knew about, to be diverted, misused or destined to purposes that were not exclusively institutional.”
But despite that claim, Italian financial police had identified forged delivery receipts for nearly 20 tons of bread, which was supposedly delivered to parishes by Spes for distribution to the poor.
In November last year, Vatican prosecutors told the court that their Italian counterparts had found the forged receipts among nearly 1,000 pages of paperwork they examined.
When the paperwork for the supposed deliveries was produced, no one recognized the signatures on the documents, prosecutors said, and Italian financial police concluded that they were created weeks prior to the police searches and meant to cover supposed deliveries dating back to 2018, for which no other records exist.
Both Cardinal Becciu’s brother and Fr. Curzu are under investigation by Italian authorities in Sardinia as part of their enquiry into the matter.
Sources close to the Vatican prosecutors’ office told The Pillar that they believed Antonio Becciu and Fr. Curzu were concerned that they would be asked questions which would have left them with the choice of either implicating themselves in criminal activity or making false statements which could have been used against them by Italian prosecutors.
Speaking during the Vatican hearing on Wednesday, chief judge Giuseppe Pignatone declared the witnesses’ decision not to appear “illegitimate” and their contention about a lack of guarantees “inadmissible.”
Pignatone reminded the court that Vatican City, like other jurisdictions, recognizes the “privilege against self-incrimination” which, the judge said “constitutes a firm guarantee also offered by the Vatican legal system.”
Also failing to arrive in court was Luciano Capaldo, the Anglo-Italian architect who, for a time, was the sole director of the UK-registered company through which the Holy controlled the building at 60 Sloane Ave, London, which the Holy See acquired from the investment manager Raffaele Mincione via Gianluigi Torzi in 2018, and sold at a loss of more than 100 million euros last year.
Capaldo, who is not a defendant in the trial, has previously given evidence in which he explained that he had agreed to help officials at the Secretariat of State spy on Torzi — a business associate of Mincione chosen to broker the deal by the Secretariat of State.
Capaldo told investigators that he had access for a period of time to surveillance cameras inside Torzi’s offices, and passed information and images to Monsignor Mauro Carlino, a former official at the Secretariat of State also currently indicted for extortion and abuse of office.
Also Capaldo has previously appeared as a witness at the trial, defense lawyers had only a limited time to question him and he was due to answer further questions Wednesday. But, the court was told, he had suddenly become “unavailable” and a new date had been set for him to appear later this month.
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