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Vatican financial trial resumes

The trial over the Secretariat of State’s financial scandal resumed Sept. 28 in Vatican City, kicking off the second year of hearings in the case, and offering a preview of the prosecution's witness list.

The beginning of a three-day slate of hearings saw the final appearance of a former senior lay official at the Secretary of State’s investment office, and the release of the first slate of witnesses to be called by the prosecution.

The court has been in recess since July. In the intervening months, the judges have been considering a list, submitted by prosecutors and lawyers, of proposed witnesses still to be called in the trial, now in its second year.

Before the court adjourned for the summer in July, chief judge Giuseppe Pignatone told the court that around two hundred names had been submitted for consideration.

During the Sept. 28 hearing, the first list of 27 witnesses for the prosecution was released.

Those to be called include Gianfranco Mammi the director of the IOR, a Vatican bank, who triggered the investigation into a London property deal at the Secretariat of State in 2019 when he flagged suspicious aspects of the deal to Pope Francis, after which the pontiff authorized an investigation into the secretariat’s financial affairs.

The Secretariat of State arranged to acquire a building at 60 Sloane Ave. as part of the terms of separation from Raffaele Micione, a London based investment manager with whom the secretariat had invested some 200 million euros in 2014. The Vatican department incurred heavy financial penalties for early withdrawal from Mincione’s fund, and agreed to assume a more than 100 million euro mortgage on the property, in addition to forfeiting the balance of their investment.

In total, the building cost the secretariat 350 million euros and was sold early this year for a loss of more than 100 million. Shortly after closing the deal, which was delayed by alleged attempts at extortion by the secretariat’s broker in the process, Gianluigi Torzi, the Secretariat of State applied to the IOR for a 150 million loan to refinance the mortgage on the property.

Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, sostituto at the secretariat, pressed Mammi to approve the deal and, when this failed to secure the money, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, wrote to the bank’s president, Jean Baptiste de Franssu, insisting that the loan be approved.

Earlier this year, the court heard that Peña Parra had ordered a retaliatory investigation into Mammi when the loan application was denied, including having the bank director’s cell phone details passed to an “electronic security expert”.

Also among the first round of witnesses to be called by the prosecution is Alessandro Cassinis Righini, auditor general of the Vatican.

Righini was given the post on a permanent basis last year, having previously served in the role on an interim basis since 2017, upon the departure of Libero Milone, the first person to hold the job.

Milone, not on the list of witnesses released, was forced to resign in 2017 by one of the trial’s star defendants, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who threatened Milone with prosecution if he did not resign. Becciu said Milone had been “spying on the private lives of his superiors and staff, including me.”

Milone has said that his offices and phones had been bugged and that, in the course of his attempts to audit the secretariat’s investments, “we had come across something we shouldn’t have seen.” Milone has said that he had been unable to get past Becciu, then sostituto and effective papal chief of staff, to brief the pope on what he had found.

Earlier this year, Cardinal Becciu told the court that the decision to sack Milone had come from Pope Francis personally. In his Advent address to the curia in 2017, Francis made a thinly veiled reference to Milone’s forced departure, referring to “persons carefully selected to give a greater vigour to the body and to the reform, but – failing to understand the lofty nature of their responsibility – let themselves be corrupted by ambition or vainglory.”

Underlining his allusion to Milone, the pope continued: “Then, when they are quietly sidelined, they wrongly declare themselves martyrs of the system, of a ‘Pope kept in the dark,’ of the ‘old guard’…, rather than reciting a mea culpa.”

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Not among the prosecution’s list of witnesses is Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, the former head of the Secretariat of State’s administrative office, who gave hours of evidence about the secretariat’s financial affairs in a series of depositions to prosecutors during their investigation.

While some media reports of the day’s hearing highlighted Perlasca’s absence from the prosecution list, given the volume of evidence he has already provided to the prosecutors, Perlasca was always more likely to be summoned for cross examination by defense lawyers.

The hearing included a final appearance by Fabrizio Tirabassi, a former lay official in the secretariat in charge of administering investments, who is charged with corruption, extortion, embezzlement, fraud and abuse of office.

Tirabassi was asked by prosecutors about his personal and household income streams, which were described as “stable” over the years, and why financial records turned over by Swiss banking authorities showed an account under his name with more than 1.3 million euros on deposit in 2015.

Tirabassi said the money was related to Vatican funds over which he had held power of attorney between 2004-2009. The power of attorney was withdrawn, he said, by Perlasca on his arrival at the department. It has previously been reported that Tirabassi had a lucrative side deal with a Swiss bank, which paid him a commission fee for Vatican financial transactions made through the bank.

Tiribassi was also asked about hundreds of thousands of euros in cash, stored in shoe boxes, as well as coins, gold, jewelry, and other valuables worth more than 2 million euros hidden in a wardrobe discovered at one of his residences during a search conducted by Vatican investigators together with Italian authorities. Tirabassi said they were the property of his father, who had an interest in rare coins and did not trust banks.

In footage of depositions given by Msgr. Perlasca to investigators, leaked to the media last year, the monsignor mentions that boxes of thousands of gold and silver coins were kept unsecured in the Secretariat of State’s offices after they were discovered in the vaults of the IOR.

In court documents filed in the UK, another key defendant in the trial, Gianluigi Torzi, accused Tirabassi of threatening him and his family over control of the London building. Torzi also claimed that in the course of their business dealings, Tirabassi offered him prostitutes, and boasted of blackmailing senior clergy at the Secretariat of State, including the current and former sostitutos Archbishop Peña Parra and Cardinal Angelo Becciu.

The trial is set to resume Thursday and Friday, when prosecutors will question Nicola Squillace, the lawyer who offered legal advice to the Secretariat of State on the London deal brokered by Torzi, whom he introduced and recommended to the Vatican.

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