What the new reports about Cardinal Becciu might mean

Analysis

On Monday, Cardinal Angelo Becciu’s attorney issued a statement that aimed to rebuff a new series of allegations against the disgraced cardinal. The allegations quickly appeared to amount to little, if anything, but the manner in which they came to light could prove to be the beginning of a very interesting series of revelations connected to the Vatican financial scandal.

The statement from Becciu’s lawyer addressed an April 26 report by Italian TV station Rai 3, which reported on 2011 between the cardinal and officials at the Institute for Works of Religion, a Vatican bank. 

Back in 2011, Becciu, then sostituto at the Secretariat of State, was asked for an opinion about banking services to be provided to members of the Iranian diplomatic mission to the Holy See — specifically the question of allowing Iranian diplomatic staff to make cash deposits at the bank. Iran was subject to severe international financial sanctions at the time. 

Becciu responded in favor of allowing access to the Vatican banking system for Iranian diplomats. 

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The Rai report suggested the use of the IOR by Iranian nationals could have been an opportunity for money laundering by the regime, since Iranians would have had the ability to send transfers out of the bank via wire transfer, possibly circumventing international sanctions.

Becciu’s lawyer hit back against any suggestion of impropriety yesterday, pointing out that allowing access to basic banking facilities to delegations from sovereign states was part of the ordinary diplomatic process. He also said that Becciu urged careful tracking of the amount of money the Iranians were depositing and withdrawing at the bank, and compliance with all necessary regulations.

The argument presented by Becciu’s lawyer appears to defuse any immediate suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of the cardinal, especially since the IOR was the subject of an on-site inspection by international money-laundering regulators in 2012

But perhaps more interesting than the actual contents of the Becciu-IOR correspondence is the fact that it was leaked at all. Until recent weeks, Italian media interest in the Vatican financial scandal has been limited to a few newspapers, and Italian reporting has usually focused on the London property deal which triggered the current investigation. 

Coverage of the financial scandal in the Roman press has mostly consisted of an exchange of dueling reports. First sources in the Vatican prosecutor’s office brief Italian media, and then sources at the Secretariat of State rebuff them through counter-briefings given to favored members of the Vatican press corps. More substantive coverage of Vatican finances has been limited mostly to a few U.S. and U.K. based publications.

The leak of the Becciu-IOR correspondence appears to signal a new development, since the story seems to have no connection to either the London deal or the current Vatican investigation. 

While it is difficult to determine who might have leaked the letter to Italian press, or why, it can be noted that a leak could have come only from the IOR itself or the Secretariat of State, or from some third-party who received the document from someone in those offices.

Its presentation in the media seems mostly intended to link Becciu’s name to supposedly shady financial dealings.

This suggests two possibilities: either that the IOR, on which international anti-money laundering watchdogs are about to publish a report, has an interest in reminding the world of the extent to which the Secretariat of State has, until very recently, had a powerful voice in the conduct of its commercial affairs; or that the Secretariat of State itself is now eager to put Becciu forward as responsible for his own actions during his time at the department, which is now under the spotlight of a criminal investigation by Vatican authorities.

Either option suggests that, as pressure mounts among Vatican senior officials who could themselves face scrutiny, some of them will want to keep the focus, especially in the Italian press, squarely on Becciu. 

Of course, there are other plausible reasons about why someone might have leaked the letter, but those seem quite reasonable as live possibilities.

Rai also ran recently a report and interview with Cecilia Marogna, the self-described intelligence agent for Becciu, who is currently wanted by Vatican authorities on charges of embezzlement and money laundering. 

This week, Rai also broadcast an interview with Libero Milone, the Vatican’s first auditor general, who was forced by Becciu to resign in 2017, under threat of prosecution. At the time of his exit from the Vatican, Milone made it clear he had been forced to leave because he was doing his job too well, something which appeared to be confirmed by Becciu himself, who accused Milone of “spying” on his private financial affairs.

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Milone has not given any extensive public comment since his 2017 sacking, but this week went on to confirm previous reports, first made in 2019, that his office and the Secretariat for the Economy, then under Cardinal George Pell, had detected the investments made by the Secretariat of State which led to the London deal as early as 2016 but had been rebuffed by the Secretariat of State when they pressed for details.

According to previous reports, Becciu has summoned Pell to the Secretariat of State and “reprimanded” the cardinal for prying into the secretariat’s sovereign affairs, despite the apparent use of prohibited accounting practices to shield the investments from detection and scrutiny. 

Earlier this month, an Italian judge issued an arrest warrant for Gianluigi Torzi, the businessman at the center of the final stages of the London deal. Torzi, in addition to being wanted in Italy and the Vatican on charges of money laundering, extortion, tax evasion, and embezzlement, recently made a series of salacious accusations to a U.K. court of serial blackmail among officials at the Secretariat of State, including Cardinal Becciu.

Should Torzi eventually repeat those allegations in an Italian court, it could trigger a new wave of scandal and recriminations in Becciu’s old department, and dial up international scrutiny of the Vatican’s place on international financial white lists.

Taken together, all of this suggests that the Vatican’s investigation into both Becciu and his old department may soon reach a crescendo, and the chances of senior figures answering questions in court are getting higher. In that event, Becciu could find himself isolated.

Since he was fired by Pope Francis in September last year, just days before the arrival of European anti-money laundering inspectors, Becciu has made repeated statements defending himself from accusations of financial misconduct, insisting that he is, and has always been, a loyal servant and defender of the institutional Church. 

It remains to be seen how much support is left for Becciu in the institution. But with media interest growing and leaks against him becoming more frequent, it may not be enough.