Who will say what during the Vatican financial trial?

Analysis

The announcement that 10 individuals will face charges for a range of financial crimes marks the end of a two year investigation by Vatican prosecutors. But the trial, which includes several prominent Vatican figures, is likely to mark the beginning of a new phase in the financial scandal, and could yet lead to more revelations, new accusations, and more figures brought to trial.

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The Holy See press office announced July 3 the prosecution of several individuals following a sprawling investigation which began with a complaint lodged against the Secretariat of State’s now famous London property deal. 

The list of those set to face charges in court has drawn international attention, both for the high profile individuals it includes, as well as those it does not. With a potentially lengthy trial set to begin on July 27, many of those set to appear in court have insisted that they will prove their innocence. 

As they make their defenses, the indicted figures may provide new details of the Secretariat of State’s byzantine financial affairs, and could implicate more people in the transactions now deemed explicitly criminal by Vatican authorities. 

Becciu and Marogna

Most prominent among those indicted is Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the former sostituto at the secretariat who, for years, acted as de facto papal chief of staff. His indictment marks the highest-ranking former Vatican figure known to be indicted for financial crimes; during the investigation he was forced to resign from his Vatican offices and from most of the privileges associated with being a cardinal.  

Becciu, together with Msgr. Mauro Carlino, another former official at the Secretariat of State, is one of only two clerics to be charged thus far. 

The cardinal stands accused of funneling Church funds to organisations linked to members of his family, embezzlement, and abusing his office. 

According to prosecutors, Becciu is accused of authorizing officials at the Secretariat of State, including Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, to make payments to Cecilia Marogna, the self-styled geopolitical strategist and security consultant, after he was transferred out of the department — a potentially criminal action first flagged by The Pillar in February.

Thanks to evidence recovered from mobile phones, Vatican prosecutors seem confident they can show Becciu’s involvement in the London property scandal, both before and after his time at the Secretariat of State. There have also been reports that WhatsApp messages from Becciu show him describing Vatican prosecutors as “pigs” and dismissing the investigation as of no concern.

Marogna, who is herself accused of embezzlement and is due to stand trial alongside Becciu, has stated publicly that the cardinal ordered her to gather intelligence and compile dossiers for him on the private moral failings of other senior curial officials.

While Becciu, as a cardinal and career cleric, might be expected to honor a culture of clerical self-protection and try to limit the spread of the scandal to other curial officials during his own trial, Marogna, as an Italian citizen and lay woman, is unlikely to risk a conviction and the possibility of prison time out of institutional loyalty. 

She has already given indications that she has a wealth of details not covered by the prosecution so far, which could prove interesting if she gives evidence in court.

In an October interview, Marogna said her work for the secretariat also involved the use of London-based brokers, adding that the sums of money she was paid - 500,000-600,000 euros - were “small change” compared to others involved with the department.

“I can also tell you that Becciu and I weren’t the only ones running certain businesses,” she said.

Brülhart and Di Ruzza

Perhaps the two most surprising names on the prosecutors indictment list released on Saturday were René Brülhart and Tomazzo Di Ruzza, both formerly of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority (AIF), now rebranded the Supervisory and Financial Information Authority.

Brülhart left his post as AIF president in 2019, shortly after a controversial raid on the AIF offices by Vatican gendarmes, ostensibly because his term of office had lapsed.  

That raid led to the AIF’s suspension from the Egmont Group, the international cooperating mechanism of national financial intelligence agencies. 

He now faces charges of abuse of office, and his inclusion on the list of indictees was a surprise. The Swiss native is widely respected in European financial circles. Prior to taking over the Vatican AIF in 2012, he led the Lichtenstein financial intelligence unit and was hailed as a successful anti-corruption reformer. 

With that reputation now at risk, Brülhart is unlikely to spare any effort to clear his name, and could end up lifting the lid on a range of internal practices and networks within Vatican financial institutions in a bid to clear his name. 

Brülhart has said already that he has not received a formal summons from the Vatican City court, and claimed the charges against him are a “procedural error.” He’s said as soon as he is given the chance to offer his defense, accusations against him “will disappear like mist in the sun."

Di Ruzza is facing charges of embezzlement, abuse of office, and breach of confidentiality. He was suspended from his job as AIF director after the 2019 raid and subsequently replaced. Like Brülhart, he similarly will be fighting for his reputation, future career, and possibly even his freedom, and is unlikely to spare the blushes of former curial colleges and superiors in his defense. 

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Carlino and Tirabassi

Apart from Becciu, Brülhart, and Di Ruzza, Msgr. Carlino and the layman Fabrizio Tirabassi are the other full-time curial employees to be charged by prosecutors. 

Tirabassi has been the subject of numerous reports detailing his personal interests in the Vatican business he was employed to oversee. 

Those reports include his appointment to the board of the Luxembourg holding company which was allegedly used to extort the Vatican secretariat for millions during the London property deal, and his private arrangement with a Swiss bank which paid him a “finder’s fee” commission for the Vatican’s business conducted at the bank. 

He has also been accused of blackmail, threats of violence, and offering prostitutes in his dealings with some of the other people indicted on Saturday. 

To date, Tiribassi appears to be the Vatican employee who faces the most extensive and serious list of accusations. 

Vatican sources have privately suggested he is the most obvious candidate to take the lion’s share of the blame for internal corruption in the current scandal. But his lawyers have insisted that his side deals, despite appearing to be obvious conflicts of interest with his full-time Vatican job, were all known and agreed to by his departmental superiors and were acknowledged as a “fringe benefit” of his work.

If Tirabassi is charged as the primary “inside man” in a conspiracy to defraud the Secretariat of State, his entire defense is likely to rest on proving that he didn’t deceive anyone, and that everything he did was knowingly approved by the Vatican’s top brass. 

If that defense plays out in court, Tirabassi could prove to be a real threat to the Secretariat of State’s current leadership, Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra. Both those men have, so far, escaped charges, and are portrayed by prosecutors as the victims of a fraud perpetrated by their subordinates.

Msgr. Carlino, who worked with Tirabassi in the Secretariat of State’s general affairs office, was for a time a director of the U.K. company through which the Vatican controls the London building at the heart of the current scandal. He also, for years, worked with Cardinal Becciu and Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, who was not indicted on Saturday and is believed to be the prosecution’s star cooperating witness.

While he may prove less likely than Tirabassi to turn on other senior curial figures from the witness box, he is unlikely to accept being made a clerical sacrificial lamb in a departmental-wide scandal, and he could end up offering a version of events which implicates Perlasca in ways that prosecutors cannot ignore.

Mincione and Torzi

The two businessmen at the center of the whole London property deal remain a real pair of wildcards ahead of a trial in Vatican City. 

While their business links to each other, which appear to pose a conflict of interest in the sale of the London building to the Holy See, have been well-documented, Mincione has already initiated court proceedings against the Secretariat of State in the U.K., asking a judge to grant him declaratory relief against any suggestion he acted improperly in his dealings with the Vatican. 

Given that that lawsuit in the High Court of England and Wales predates the Vatican’s formal charges, Mincione may argue it must be settled first, which could stymie any efforts by the Vatican to have him extradited if he declines to attend the trial.

He may also point out that if the U.K. court finds in his favor, the London deal cannot be legally undone, and any Vatican decision to that effect will be rendered moot.

Mincione has already indicated that he has documentation showing that everyone involved in the Vatican’s side of the London deal had proper legal authority to act. Unpicking that authorization will likely prove the prosecution’s main challenge, and necessarily involve assigning personal blame to senior officials within the Secretariat of State.

Torzi is currently in London awaiting the conclusion of an extradition hearing which could see him returned to Italy to face separate but linked charges of financial crimes. It remains to be seen if he will be sent back to Rome, and if so, if Italian authorities will hand him over to the Vatican to stand trial there first.

But if Torzi does arrive in a Vatican courtroom, he is likely to end up repeating sensational accusations already made before a U.K. judge, alleging Tirabassi to be a serial blackmailer and extortionist, including against Cardinal Becciu and his successor at the Secretariat of State Archbishop Peña Parra. 

Details of that alleged blackmail could yet prove the most unpredictable, and scandalous part of the impending courtroom drama.

Torzi is also the man who famously met with Pope Francis at the height of his alleged efforts to extort the Vatican. While many will struggle to accept him as a credible witness, any accusations he may try to level against the pope could prove immensely damaging to the credibility of the Holy See, and to the pope personally, even if they are not necessarily true.

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Cardinal Parolin

While unnamed by Vatican prosecutors on Saturday, Cardinal Parolin, the Secretary of State, is, in many ways, at the center of the scandal and trial surrounding his department.

It was a request from Parolin to the IOR, a Vatican bank, to shore up the secretariat’s London investment which triggered the investigation which has now resulted in ten people facing criminal charges in the Vatican.

In the past, Parolin has publicly taken responsibility for financial deals which have appeared to go against standing Vatican financial regulations, and the extent to which he is personally responsible for the current situation is likely to be hotly contested in court.

Court findings in Italy and the U.K. have already established that the cardinal personally authorized key parts of the deal, including the complicated corporate arrangement by which Torzi was allegedly able to extort the Vatican for control of the London building.

So far, prosecutors in the Vatican and judges in Rome have agreed that Parolin was deceived into approving the allegedly criminal actions by those working in and for his department. 

But as those charged with deceiving him appear in court and are left fighting for their freedom and futures, Parolin’s apparently invincible ignorance about what was going on in the department he is in charge of running is likely to be keenly disputed in court.

Even if Parolin does convince the court he never understood what he was signing, he may still be left with much to lose: proving his ignorance may rely on his ability to show he is incapable of running his own department.