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Why the Vatican hasn’t settled with Libero Milone

The Holy See’s former auditor general was back in Vatican City court Wednesday, for the preliminary appeal hearing of his lawsuit against the Secretariat of State. 

Image: Libero Milone.

Libero Milone is suing for wrongful dismissal and damages over his 2017 ousting, in which he was forced to resign under threat of prosecution by then-sostituto at the secretariat, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, and the then-head of the Vatican City Corps of Gendarmes, Domenico Gianni.

But as the case enters its second phase, many wonder how it ever got this far to begin with, since hardly anyone seems to dispute Milone’s basic narrative. 

The answer to that may be that, however embarrassing his lawsuit might be, litigating the matter is seen in the Vatican as better than the alternatives — at least for some people.


The July 3 hearing was brief, lasting barely an hour, with lawyers for both sides rehearsing procedural motions and objections previously litigated before the lower court, which decided against Milone in January. Those arguments included the Vatican claim that Milone filed suit outside the window for legal action, and that his former department, the Office of the Auditor General, shouldn’t be party to the case.

The three judge panel reserved judgment at the end of the session, promising a decision on whether the appeal can proceed “soon,” according to sources present for proceedings.

It’s possible the appeal court will deny any more hearings, leaving Milone no other legal avenue than the city-state’s court of cassation, where most judges are cardinals without legal training.

But assuming the appeal is heard in full, Milone’s team remain trapped trying to argue out of a legal Catch-22, in which no one really disputes that the auditor was ill-used, even illegally ejected from his role for doing his job, but everyone denies legal responsibility for it.

In a Jan. 22 decision, the Vatican City’s court of first instance rejected the claims brought by Milone, and by his recently deceased former deputy, Ferruccio Panicco, over their ousting from office in 2017.

The men sought damages of millions of euros for loss of earning and reputation, contending that they had been forced from office for being too good at their jobs and uncovering high-level curial financial corruption, including what became known as the London property scandal.

At the time of their departure from office, both men were detained for hours by Vatican City gendarmes and threatened with prosecution if they refused to resign their posts. 

Speaking publicly at the time, then sosituto of the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Angelo Becciu claimed credit for their forced departure, accusing Milone of “spying” on his personal finances, and confirming he would have had Milone face criminal prosecution in Vatican City had he not resigned.

Last year, in a separate Vatican City case, Becciu was convicted of abuse of office and embezzlement, and sentenced to five and a half years in prison. 

However, while the court did not conclude that Milone and Panicco had been rightly forced from their jobs in 2017, the judges rejected the argument that the Secretariat of State was liable for their ouster, loss of earnings, and subsequent damage to their reputations.

Instead, the judges ruled that Milone’s own narrative of his ouster placed responsibility on the senior leadership of the Vatican City corps of gendarmes, which did not create a chain of liability for the Secretariat of State, despite the then number two official in the department Cardinal Becciu’s publicly acknowledged involvement.

If Becciu could be held responsible for orchestrating Milone’s resignation under threat of criminal prosecution, the judges found, it would be ipso facto an illegal act and an abuse of office; the Secretariat of State as a department could not be held liable for criminal acts committed by officials, ruled the court.

Moreover, while Becciu has long taken credit for Milone’s ouster, he has always said he acted on the express instructions of Pope Francis which — if true — would potentially make whatever followed a papal act of governance, and therefore legally unappealable. 

For many of those who have followed the progress of justice in the financial crimes scandals of the last decade, the Milone result appeared like a deliberate exercise in legal sophistry by the Vatican to deny justice to the scandal’s most obvious individual victims. 

A more rounded analysis of events might conclude that “the Vatican” has no real coherence as an institution in Milone’s case, and he has been left stranded in the middle of competing institutional interests: 

On the one hand, there is the Secretariat of State, which is currently party to another major lawsuit in London while still embroiled in the appeal process for the criminal trial which convicted Becciu and 8 other former secretariat staff and advisors. 

Put simply, if the secretariat were to accept liability for what happened to Milone it would leave it open to millions of euros in damages — do say nothing of having to absorb another body blow to its public credibility. After years of humiliating public losses — financial and moral — it’s unclear if the papal secretariat has the institutional reserves to absorb more of either.

On the other side, the Vatican City court is trying to pick its way through a reputational minefield, with its credibility frequently called into question during and after the financial crimes trial. In Milone’s case, it is being asked to judge between what may be a pressing moral claim and a technically impregnable legal defense.

For many looking in from outside, the fact that Milone’s case has made it to court at all, let alone to the point of appeal, looks like a self-inflicted wound by “the Vatican.” After all, it isn’t as if either of the major antagonists, Becciu and Domenico Giani, remain in post. On the contrary, both have had to resign in disgrace and, in the cardinal’s case, his former department has branded him a liar and a criminal in their own legal submissions in London.

And indeed, it isn’t the case that Milone’s lawsuit is some kind of legal inevitability, and that there is no way for “the Vatican” to act to resolve his grievances reasonably and with an appearance of justice. 

But the two obvious options for doing so rely on men who, at least so far, show no obvious interest in getting involved.

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The first, most obvious way for Milone’s situation to be resolved — including to those closest to Milone’s legal team — would seem to be for the whole matter to be settled out of court. This could allow for some kind of choreographed vindication of Milone’s reputation without necessarily an admission of any substantial liability by the Secretariat of State.

But any such settlement would have to be brokered with the approval of Pope Francis, who has repeatedly rebuffed such suggestions, sources close to the Secretariat of State have told The Pillar

Why the pope remains apparently set against blessing a settlement is unclear, and sources disagree on the likely reasons. 

Some say Francis is personally stung by Milone’s public denunciations of curial corruption as he has made his case in public, and believes they undermine his credibility as a reformer. 

Others suggest the pope is embarrassed at having been manipulated by Becciu and feels like settling with Milone would be an admission of personal responsibility for what happened.

Still other sources close to the case argue that Francis is determined not to interfere in any Vatican legal process, and is acutely sensitive to allegations the Vatican is operating a kangaroo court system. 

Whatever the reason, however much some senior figures within the Secretariat of State have been open to some kind of settlement, Pope Francis has entertained no such notions. 

On the contrary, although Francis met and spoke several times with Cardinal Becciu during his trial, sources close to the Secretariat of State say the pope has denied repeated requests for a meeting with, or even about, Milone.

The second possibility for addressing Milone’s claims — uncontested claims at this point — that he was wrongfully forced from office by Cardinal Becciu and Domenico Giani would seem to be for the Vatican City state to treat the whole affair as a criminal matter.

The Secretariat of State has already conceded as much in the current lawsuit, accepting that any action by Becciu to coerce Milone’s departure and co-opt Vatican police in the process, would have been extralegal acts and abuses of office.

Similarly, Giani’s role in detaining and interrogating Milone and his former deputy for hours, threatening them with criminal prosecution and demanding they sign documents, would seem to fall easily within the bounds of a prosecutable offense.

If the Vatican City’s Office of the Promoter of Justice were to initiate a prosecution of either or both men for their actions, Milone could join the action as a civil party and seek damages from them personally — Cardinal Becciu, at least, would seem to have the personal means.

Yet the chief prosecutor, Alessandro Diddi, despite successfully prosecuting Becciu in the financial crimes trial (in which the Secretariat of State joined his office as a civil party) he has declined similar action in Milone’s case. 

On the contrary, Diddi’s office instead responded to Milone’s suit by filing an interest in the case, putting the auditor on notice he might face prosecution himself — on exactly the same charges which Becciu and Gianni threatened to force him from office in the first place.

Despite his prosecutorial success, Diddi is remarkable for his rational inscrutability — despite securing nine convictions in court last December, with hundreds of millions of euros in damages from the defendants and lengthy prison terms, he opted to appeal his own victory, arguing the judges failed to sufficiently vindicate his “one big conspiracy” thesis in their verdict.

Why he would choose not to pursue further criminal charges against such high profile suspects as Becciu and Giani is unclear. 

Some speculate that there’s little return on the potential risks of taking such a case to trial, since Becciu has already been convicted and Giani, an Italian citizen living outside Vatican City, would be unlikely to present himself in court. 

Added to that, a win for Diddi in such a prosecution could still end up being a net loss for “the Vatican,” in as much as it could shed more unwelcome light on a climate of curial corruption. 

Even worse, that climate would, in the case of Milone’s ousting, appear to have successfully reversed Pope Francis’ commitment to reform, at least for a time. 

According to those familiar with Diddi’s work as promoter of justice, he sees himself first and foremost as a servant of the pope — and he might hesitate to bring a case which could prove embarrassing to Francis personally, especially if the pope appears otherwise committed to steering clear of Milone’s case altogether.

All of this would seem to leave Milone as a victim of circumstances and agendas beyond his control. The extent to which he remains so may be up to him, though.

Since he first announced his intention to sue, the auditor has repeatedly stated that he retains copies of his official files, including proof of systematic corruption at the highest levels of the curia. He has since deposited all this evidence with the court, so all sides — the Secretariat of State, the judges, and presumably the pope — know exactly what he has.

The real question may prove to be not if he can find justice in Vatican City, but how far he is willing to go — and how publicly — to clear his name and restore his reputation if he is denied it. 

For now at least, “the Vatican,” in all its forms, appears to be trying to call his bluff.

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