In the Vatican City’s courtroom last week, Cardinal Angelo Becciu said he had complained to Pope Francis; the cardinal claimed the pontiff had meddled in the criminal case against him, and shown “solidarity” with his accusers.
Becciu is not the first to accuse Francis of interfering with the Vatican’s judicial process, or of taking a casual attitude toward the rule of law in the city state he governs.
In fact, the widely-circulated “Demos memo,” published anonymously in March 2022 - and recently reported to be the work of Cardinal George Pell - makes the same argument.
But is the criticism fair? Has Francis inserted himself into the case against Becciu? How has the pope navigated the roles of both chief pastor and sovereign ruler in the Vatican?
Cardinal Becciu’s complaint, that Francis has interfered in the criminal investigation and trial against him and nine others, and skewed laws and processes against the defendants, has been made several times since the trial began in July, 2021.
Becciu, the highest profile defendant in the ongoing financial crimes trial, said Friday that he complained to the pope last summer that Francis had breached his “neutrality” by greeting a prosecution witness during a general audience last summer.
“In procedural terms, this act will not be seen as emanating from the pope, but from the first magistrate of the legal system of the Vatican State, and therefore as an interference in the process,” Becciu said he told Francis in August.
According to the cardinal, Francis responded with an apology, saying he was “sorry that this gesture of greeting could do harm. They asked me if the lady could come with her children to the General Audience and have a kiss on the hand… and I thought it would do her good, for her to come.”
“I didn’t even know [Francesca Chaouqui] is mixed up in the [current] judgment, I won’t go into that,” Becciu claimed Francis wrote to him.
Leaving aside the pope’s claim of ignorance about the woman’s involvement in the case - she told the court Friday she had been feeding Francis constant updates about the accusations against Becciu, and is herself a somewhat notorious figure around the Vatican - Becciu would seem to have a serious point, at least at first glance.
If the pontiff, the supreme judicial power of the state, is seen publicly and cordially greeting a key figure in an ongoing criminal process, it could be interpreted as a nod to the pope’s views on the case, especially in a place that speaks mostly in symbols, namely that of the Church..
But, of course, that isn’t the whole story.
If greeting someone involved in the trial is a sign of public papal favor, and meant to signal how he wants the court to proceed, Becciu would seem to have much to thank the pope for: Since Francis ordered Becciu to resign his curial roles and cardinalatial rights in September 2020, the pope has met with the cardinal on several occasions.
During Holy Week of 2021, Francis went to Becciu’s apartment to celebrate a private Holy Thursday Mass with the cardinal, who was under criminal investigation at the time.
Since then, Francis has entertained Becciu several times, including - according to Becciu - to discuss sensitive details about his own trial as it is happening.
And Becciu has also made sure to tell the world, repeatedly, that he and Francis continue to exchange emails, and that when he calls, the pope picks up the phone.
But despite all of the meetings between the two men, there’s been little sign that Francis’ “pastoral closeness” to his former chief of staff has influenced the case against him.
The Holy Week Mass in 2021 didn’t prevent charges filed against Becciu a few months later.
And, despite Becciu’s predictions to the contrary, the cardinal has not been given the right to attend the next papal conclave, despite his recent papal invitations to Vatican functions.
Nor, it is worth noting, did Francis’ reception of Chaouqui last summer lead to a papal pardon for her past crimes — something Becciu has claimed she craves, though Chaouqui herself denies it.
In short, Francis’ apparent desire to remain available to everyone involved in the trial has often prompted questions from Vatican-watchers and even people involved in the case, including Becciu. But there is nothing to suggest the pope has turned “pastoral closeness” into personal favor — at least as yet.
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But behind Becciu’s most recent complaint is a more substantial accusation against Francis, one made in the unsigned “Demos” memo circulated among cardinals in Rome last year and frequently echoed in the press.
The memo, published in March by Vatican journalist Sandro Magister, was reported by Magister this month to have been written by the late Cardinal Pell.
The text listed a number of stark criticisms of Pope Francis’ time in office, including the pope’s treatment of Cardinal Becciu during the current legal process.
“The pope has changed the law four times during the trial to help the prosecution,” the memo states. “Cardinal Becciu has not been treated justly because he was removed from his position and stripped of his cardinalatial dignities without any trial. He did not receive due process. Everyone has a right to due process.
“As the pope is head of the Vatican state and the source of all legal authority, he has used this power to intervene in legal procedures,” the memo contends.
The criticism laid against Francis is made all the more striking by the text’s reported authorship — Becciu was a chief antagonist in Pell’s work to reform Vatican finances.
Indeed, Pell’s longtime efforts to unravel the Secretariat of State’s investment of hundreds of millions of euros in borrowed money was, by most assessments, the first in a chain of events which led to Becciu’s current criminal trial.
The deep, sometimes deeply personal, antipathy between the two cardinals makes shocking the Demos memo’s defense of Becciu’s right to due process.
But is it fair to Francis? Is it a sound assessment of what the pope has done?
Francis famously compelled Becciu to resign his offices and rights as a cardinal in September, 2020, reportedly after the pope was shown a preliminary dossier of evidence collected by prosecutors against Becciu.
Demos/Pell is not the first to contend that the forced resignation amounted to extra-judicial punishment — a kind of summary justice meted out against Becciu.
But another view is that Becciu was a senior cardinal and effectively a cabinet minister in Francis’ government.
If a senior official in a wholly secular government were under public criminal investigation for crimes including abuse of office, most would expect him to step down while the legal process ran its course — and, if necessary, to be asked to step down.
A step back under those circumstances is not a public declaration or admission of guilt, but many would consider it a necessary practice of good government.
In the same way, Becciu was asked to resign the attendant privileges which would have made him a governing officer of the Church, and a voting member of a conclave in the event of the pope’s death.
Those privileges can be restored —-and Becciu has repeatedly insisted that they will be.
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Francis has also been accused, both in the Demos memo and in the Vatican press, of “changing the law” several times throughout the current criminal trial, skewing the proceedings in the prosecution’s favor.
But those changes, too, can be viewed from a different angle.
It is true that Francis changed Vatican City law in April 2021, allowing bishops and cardinals to stand trial in ordinary Vatican court when charged with civil — not spiritual — crimes in Vatican City.
That change ended centuries of legal privilege for senior clerics, who previously were entitled to a trial by a special tribunal made up of their ecclesiastical peers.
But the change didn’t make it any easier for Becciu to be charged, nor did it make any subsequent prosecution of him more likely to succeed — unless one accepts the premise that a court composed exclusively of cardinals is less likely to convict one of their own, in which case the argument for the reform seems even stronger.
More to the point, Francis didn’t make the change in the middle of the process. When he changed that law, the investigation into Becciu and the other individuals connected to the Secretariat of State’s financial scandal was still ongoing, and no charges had yet been filed.
The “four times” Francis has supposedly intervened in the criminal process against Becciu, as referenced in the Demos memo, would seem to refer to four rescripts issued by Pope Francis — executive acts which grant special legal authorizations.
But, while those rescripts have been often referenced in media coverage of the trial, their actual provisions have not been widely discussed.
They contained papal authorizations to allow investigators and prosecutors to look into the financial scandal.
And, yes, they did contain “derogations” from the operative Vatican law. But how, and why?
In fact, Francis dispensed the investigators from two points of Vatican law which otherwise would have prevented any effective investigation from moving forward.
The first authorized the investigators to “act in derogation from the reporting obligations to other State Authorities” and work directly with the Office of the Promoter of Justice. In short, the pope told investigators they were not answerable to the subjects of their investigation, officials of the Secretariat of State.
Framed that way, most analysts would conclude that his act was essential to allowing any kind of credible investigation to happen at all.
The other executive acts signed by Francis amounted to waiving the state secrecy which would have otherwise stonewalled the investigators’ work.
While that action did lead to other complications — including the suspension of the Vatican’s financial watchdog from the international Egmont Group — it is difficult to sustain the claim the pope was tilting the scales of justice.
Of course, even if Francis hasn’t interfered directly in the judicial process, his habit of contacting protagonists of the case - Becciu chief among them - has frequently raised eyebrows and generated speculation.
Some commentators have concluded that the only way forward is for a “truly independent” Vatican judiciary, one with the power to “to review (and, if warranted, to vacate) pontifical acts for non-compliance with the law.”
Such a solution sounds neat, though it doesn’t reflect the legal constitution of either Vatican City or the Church — or the theology undergirding them.
The pope exercises supreme, full, immediate, and universal power - executive, legislative, and judicial - over the Church as a matter of divine law.
And as a matter of international law, the Vatican City State is governed by the Holy See, the sovereign entity of the Church in legal affairs. Segregating the pope from the governance of the Vatican City State poses both a theological problem, and a problem of international law. .
But if there is no obvious mechanism for removing the pope from a legal process conducted under his authority and in his name, Francis’ “pastoral overtures” to people involved in an ongoing trial do present a question of credibility — even if he hasn’t obviously acted in a formal way to skew the process.
That question of credibility is both institutional and person. The judges in the current trial have done their best to demonstrate their functional independence as the trial has progressed, and their true credibility will likely be judged on the verdict they eventually deliver.
The more pressing question would seem to be about Francis’ personal credibility in the process.
If the pope feels he’s unable to keep away from the trial and its participants, he may find it’s his name which is sullied by the soap opera playing out in the courtroom. What he is getting in exchange, only he can judge.
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