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Italian prosecutors probe illegal data searches on Vatican trial defendants

Italian authorities are investigating the illegal access of computer systems and databases used to search for information on key defendants in the Vatican financial trial.

According to legal documents filed by the office of the public prosecutor in Perugia, first reported by Italian journalist Maria Antonietta Calabrò, Raffaele Mincione, Gianluigi Torzi, Cecilia Margona, and Fabrizio Tirabassi all featured in illegal searches conducted on the SIVA and SERPICO systems in 2019 and 2020.

Guardia di Finanza in Rome. Image credit: JaviDEx, CC BY-SA 4.0

SIVA, Speaker Identification and Verification Archives, is a database of recorded phone calls and audio files used for voice identification research purposes. SERPICO — Systematic Evidence Recording, Processing and Interpretations of Crime Occurrences — is an international database used by law enforcement agencies to track crime related information and identify patterns of suspicious behavior.

Prosecutors have identified a slate of suspects, led by an officer in the Italian Guardia di Finanza, alleged to have abused access to the systems to search for information on individuals, including the four Vatican City defendants — all of whom were convicted in the landmark financial trial last year.

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According to prosecution filings, the searches were used to look for notices of suspicious financial transactions, as well as personal data, including income reports and tax filings.

While prosecutors have not, as yet, alleged on whose behalf the illegal searches were made, the dates of the data breaches began in July 2019, the same month that Pope Francis authorized Vatican law enforcement to commence electronic surveillance of officials at the Secretariat of State and other departments as part of an investigation into the London property deal which exploded into public scandal several months later. 

The Vatican investigation was beset by difficulties. 

In October 2019, raids carried out by Vatican City Gendarmes on offices of the Financial Information Authority resulted in the watchdog being suspended from the Edgemont Group, an international network of financial oversight bodies, over data confidentiality concerns. 

Both the AIF’s president and director were indicted for abuse of office in the case, and received fines.

That same month, the head of the Vatican police force, Domenico Giani, was forced to resign after a confidential memo was leaked to the press identifying four Secretariat of State officials who had been suspended as part of the investigation. 

Apart from the official investigation, the years-long trial also laid bare the seemingly habitual use of illegal electronic surveillance and private spies by senior officials at the Secretariat of State.

Cecilia Marogna, who was convicted by a Vatican City court of embezzlement in December and handed a three and a half year prison sentence, described herself as having worked as a private spy for Cardinal Angelo Becciu, former sostituto at the secretariat. Marogna has claimed to have compiled dossiers of compromising information on other senior Vatican officials for the cardinal, as well as boasting of connections to the Italian intelligence community.

Becciu’s successor as sostituto, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra also told the court during the trial that he had authorized illegal electronic surveillance of senior Vatican banking officials in retaliation for their refusal to approve major loans.

One businessman involved with the London deal told the court that he agreed to put Peña Parra’s office in contact with an external “security expert,” who was given the cell phone number of the director of the IOR, a Vatican bank, to target.  

The same businessman, Luciano Capaldo, told the judges that he was asked by Peña Parra’s secretary, Msgr. Mauro Carlino, to help arrange surveillance of the offices of Gianluigi Torzi, the middle man hired by the Secretariat of State to purchase the London building at 60 Sloane Avenue from Raffaele Mincione. 

Illegal database searches for information related to Capaldo were also discovered by prosecutors in Perugia and for part of their developing case.

Another witness came forward during the Vatican trial to detail how Peña Parra also privately brought in operatives from the Italian state security services to sweep his office for bugs to make sure no one in the Vatican was investigating him.

And tapes heard during the trial also included a Vatican interview of Marco Simeon, a layman known in the Italian press as “Becciu’s lobbyist” because of his ties to the disgraced cardinal, who was sentenced to more than five years in prison in December. 

The interview includes Simeon’s account of Gianluigi Torzi’s efforts to spy on other businessmen involved in the Vatican’s London property deal, and even to convince Italian intelligence officials to give them information on two Vatican employees and on Cardinal Angelo Becciu.

During an August 2020 interview, Simeon told Vatican prosecutors “off the record” that he had “fairly good relations with the world of Italian intelligence,” and that “Mr. Torzi intervened with an officer who is part of a service, and told him he wanted information on… a certain Becciu.”

Simeon, together with Becciu, helped front a group offering to buy the London building back from the Secretariat as the Vatican investigation gathered steam, allegedly as a means of shutting down prosecutors’ efforts to file charges.

That effort to buy back the building was characterized by Pope Francis as an attempt to subvert the process of justice in private letters to Becciu turned over to the Vatican court during the trial. 

The would-be purchasers were fronted by Giancarlo Inncenzi Botti, an Italian businessman who was also the subject of illegal database searches, according to the prosecutors’ filings. 

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