What’s in the ‘Perlasca tapes?’
A Pillar Explainer
Since the day the Vatican’s criminal financial trial began in July, prosecutors and defense lawyers have fought over tapes containing statements made to investigators by Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, a former senior official at the Secretariat of State.
On Friday, Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that it had been leaked the videos of Perlasca talking to investigators, and posted excerpts and summaries of what the former official told them.
So, what did we learn? The Pillar explains.
Pope Francis in the middle
Most of the focus among media outlets covering the leak of the Perlasca tape has been on an exchange between Perlasca and Alessandro Diddi, a Vatican prosecutor.
The two can be heard discussing the pope’s role in the Vatican decision to pay an additional 15 million euros to Gianluigi Torzi, the businessman who brokered the Secretariat of State’s 2018 purchase of the London building at 60 Sloane Avenue.
In the middle of the building’s sale, Torzi restructured the shares of the holding company which controlled the building to ensure that, while the Vatican got nearly all the company shares, he kept control of all the voting shares, and with it control of the company and the building. He then offered to part with these voting shares for an additional 15 million euros.
The Vatican has charged him with extortion and fraud for that maneuver. Torzi has insisted that top officials at the Secretariat of State, including Perlasca and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, approved all the details of his plan, line by line.
According to Perlasca’s deposition, when Torzi attempted to hold the Vatican up for extra cash, he wanted to report the whole affair to the Vatican’s financial authorities. “I was for making a [formal legal] denunciation,” he said, but “the indication from above was to negotiate” — above meaning Pope Francis.
The interrogator can then be heard interrupting Perlasca to insist “the pope did not say ‘Negotiate with Torzi’.”
“What happened is they went to the pope and told him ‘We don’t know how to get out of this situation, could you please come with us, and maybe faced with [the pope] these people will negotiate.’”
“His Holiness did not tell them to negotiate on the 26th [of December, 2018], they were forced to bring His Holiness into this story.”
The prosecutor goes on to insist that, having spoken personally to the pope about the matter, it is “ludicrous” and “shameful” to suggest that Francis ordered secretariat officials to negotiate with Torzi, and that Francis had been used by secretariat officials to persuade Torzi to accept an offer for extra payment in exchange for control of the London building.
Lawyers for the defense, and parts of the Italian media, have made much of the exchange, arguing that Perlasca claims the pope effectively authorized the secretariat’s payment to Torzi and that Francis interfered in the case by speaking to prosecutors in an off-the-record conversation.
While the tapes make for dramatic viewing — Perlasca is questioned in the building of the Vatican City gendarmes, seated at a table in front of a glass case containing antique rifles — the exchange about Pope Francis does not actually present much in the way of ‘new’ information.
As far back as 2019, it was known and reported that the pope had been at least partially aware of the Secretariat of State’s problems dealing with Torzi as he (allegedly) held the London building hostage in the closing weeks of 2018.
It was also known that Torzi was given a private audience for himself and his family with the pope the day after Christmas — pictures of the event were circulated on the internet shortly after Torzi’s initial arrest in Vatican City in June 2020.
What does it all mean?
So, does Perlasca’s story and Diddi’s outburst prove the pope was in on the whole deal, or that Perlasca was intimidated into changing his version of events? In a word, no.
The pope’s knowledge of the Secretariat of State’s financial affairs basically depends on briefings from the Secretariat of State itself, usually delivered through the sostituto. Until June of 2018, this was Cardinal Angelo Becciu (now on trial), since then it has been Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra.
According to his statements to investigators, Perlasca says Peña Parra blamed him for the mess the London investment had become, and froze him out of the final phase of the deal, even as Perlasca was insisting it was time to blow the whistle on Torzi and his alleged co conspirators.
“Everybody knew I was all for reporting these men and requesting a [court order],” Perlasca says on the tape, while clarifying that he wasn’t involved in presenting the problem to Pope Francis and only heard about the pope’s supposed authorization to “negotiate” from others in the secretariat.
According to the excerpts of the Perlasca tapes published by Corriere, Perlasca’s account and the prosecutor’s thesis do not necessarily contradict each other, but for both to be correct it would mean that secretariat officials enlisted the pope’s help in paying off Torzi without fully informing him of the details of the situation.
During one taped session, Perlasca is asked about his former boss, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, and payments he authorized to Cecilia Marogna, the self-styled security consultant who has said she acted as a personal “secret agent” for the cardinal.
Perlasca confirmed that he helped arrange money transfers amounting to more than half a million euros to Marogna at Becciu’s instruction, and on one occasion prepared an envelope with nearly 15,000 euros in cash for the cardinal, but that he did not know to whom the money was going — only that Becciu told him the transfers had been approved by Pope Francis personally.
“If [Becciu] had wanted to tell me, to let me know, he would have told me, but he didn’t, and I didn’t ask him,” Perlasca said. Asked about what he knew about Marogna, he responded “I didn’t even know she was a woman, I found out here [from prosecutors] that she was a woman. To me, that person was a [bank account] number.”
Marogna says she was engaged by Becciu to work on behalf of the Secretariat of State to negotiate the release of kidnapped religious sisters, including Sr. Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, who was released earlier this year — though Italian intelligence authorities have disputed this claim.
She has also said that Becciu tasked her with gathering information on the moral failings of senior Vatican officials for him.
Marogna was charged in July with embezzlement by Vatican authorities. Becciu has been charged with several crimes, including abuse of office, corruption, and witness tampering.
The charge of witness tampering was apparently brought in relation to attempts he allegedly made to persuade Perlasca to recant previous statements made to Vatican prosecutors about his dealings with Marogna.
On the tapes, Perlasca recalls that after speaking to prosecutors about the money transfers to Marogna, he went to Becciu to discuss what he had learned “because, among other things, I thought he also was a victim of embezzlement.”
“But when I went to see him he said ‘No! I know her very well,’” and that she used to work with him.
Perlasca also said that Becciu “was extremely troubled” by what Perlasca had discussed with investigators. “He became very angry with me,” for discussing the money transfers, Perlasca said.
“He asked me ‘Why didn’t you eliminate the transfers [from secretariat records]?’ I said ‘Why should I have eliminated them if they were ordered by His Holiness?’”
“It was on that occasion that he asked me to download another messaging system, which was Signal.” Signal is a secure, encrypted messaging software which can be set to automatically erase messages between parties to prevent conversations being stored or retrieved.
“He said to me: ‘From now on, you use this.’”
The pretrial hearings in the case are set to resume in Vatican City on Dec. 14.