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Pell questions ‘incomplete’ evidence from Becciu to Vatican court

Cardinal George Pell, the former head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, issued a statement Friday that questioned the “incomplete” evidence given by Cardinal Angelo Becciu to a Vatican court on Thursday.

Pell’s intervention marked an escalation in a long-simmering set of tensions between the Australian cardinal and Becciu, the cardinal facing a Vatican criminal trial on charges of  embezzlement and abusing his office.

Cardinal George Pell. Image Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Addressing Becciu’s account of several payments sent to an Australian tech security firm during Pell’s trial, Cardinal Pell said that his fellow cardinal’s narrative raised more questions about the affair.

In a statement from Pell released May 6, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, the cardinal said that Becciu, who served as sostituto at the Secretariat of State until 2018, gave Vatican judges “a spirited defense of his blameless subordinate role in the Vatican finances” during the court hearing on Thursday.

“However,” Pell said, “his account was somewhat incomplete.”

Cardinal Pell challenged Becciu’s evidence to the court on a range of issues, including on questions related to payments amounting to several million dollars sent to an Australian tech company by Becciu during Pell’s prosecution and trial there.

Pell’s statement, which came after a day in which Becciu offered a self-assured defense of his time at the Secretariat of State.

Becciu is charged with abuse of office, embezzlement, and witness tampering in the sprawling trial in which 10 individuals connected to the Secretariat of State have been charged with a range of financial offenses. On May 5, he appeared for the second time to answer the judge’s questions, following a decision by Pope Francis to waive the application of state secrecy, allowing him to speak about his confidential work at the secretariat.

In the course of a two-hour session before Vatican City judges hearing the case, Becciu addressed questions related to the Secretariat of State’s investments with the businessman Raffaele Mincione, including the London property deal which triggered the current trial, and the status of his former department as independent from broader financial oversight in the Vatican.

Pell, who until 2017 led the Secretariat of the Economy, created by Pope Francis to bring transparency and accountability to the curial finances, clashed repeatedly with Becciu during his tenure on a number of issues, including the Secretariat of State’s investments and resistance to oversight.

In his statement on Friday, Pell said that in his answers to judges the day before, Becciu “did not explain the Secretariat of State’s rejection of the papally approved supervisory role of the new Council and Secretariat for the Economy, and “did not explain his role in the sacking of the auditors PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and in the resignation of the Auditor, Libero Milone; both mandated to investigate Secretariat of State finances.”

Pell also called Becciu’s account of the Secretariat of State's use of Peter’s Pence in relation to other departmental investments “bizarre” and “at odds with the official publicity for the fund.”

But, Pell said, “my main purpose is to comment on Cardinal Becciu’s final remarks on the AUD 2.3 million paid to Neustar for the internet domain ‘.catholic’ on 4/9/2015.”

On Thursday, Becciu confirmed previous reports that the 2 million dollars in payments he authorized to the office of Neustar, a tech security firm, in Melbourne, Australia, were for the registration of the top level domain “.catholic” by the Pontifical Council for Social Communication.

The payments were sent over 2016-2017, and coincided with the investigation and trial of Cardinal Pell on sex abuse charges in Australia, fueling speculation in Italian media that Becciu had sent the money to interfere with Pell’s trial. Pell was initially convicted on the evidence of a single witness-accuser, before he was exonerated by Australia’s High Court.

In several interviews, Cardinal Pell had publicly asked Becciu to end the media speculation about the payments, which Becciu refused to do, calling Pell’s questions “offensive to [his] personal dignity” and insisting that the subject was “high, demanding, and certainly confidential.”

But, in his evidence yesterday, Becciu said that Pell had “stumbled into a misunderstanding,” and that he had himself authorized the payments in a letter dated September 11, 2015, which he produced in court.

On Friday, Pell questioned Becciu’s narrative, noting that Becciu’s statement in the court was “different from his message to [Pell] of December 17th 2020 that the destination of the funds from the Secretariat of State to Australia was none of my business, but was known to the Holy Father.”

Regarding the letter produced by Becciu apparently showing Pell authorizing expenditure for the domain name in 2015 by the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, Pell said Friday that Becciu’s explanation only “deepens the mystery” of what the payments were for.

“Was the payment from the Council for Social Communications or from the Secretariat of State?” Pell asked in the statement.

“No one disputes that the Pontifical Council for Social Communications paid amounts to Neustar Australia for their expensive services and to ICANN, the registry, for the reservation of the title ‘Catholic’ in 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.”

“Doubts, of course, are removed by facts, by evidence, not assertions,” Pell said. “Unfortunately, I do not have information on payments to Neustar Australia in 2015 beyond USD 150,000 the Council for Social Communications paid as a deposit. It was not my usual practice to sign off on payments from the Secretariat of State.”

Pell’s statement, the first time he has publicly weighed in on the progress of the Vatican financial trial, could result in his being called as a witness in the case against Becciu, who has so far sought to excuse multiple instances of alleged criminal conduct by insisting that his actions were personally approved by Pope Francis.

During Pell’s time at leading the Secretariat for the Economy, he was tasked with implementing sweeping financial reforms brought in by the pope following years of financial scandal under the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

Pell repeatedly clashed with Becciu on the issue of financial reform — including over the investments by the Secretariat of State which led to the London property deal.

If called to give evidence in the Vatican trial, Pell could potentially address any number of issues related to the charges against Becciu, but also others on trial, including the former heads of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority.

Pell did not acknowledge any of the other charges or defendants in trail in his statement Friday. The cardinal said that that “My interest is focused on four payments with a value of AUD 2.3 million made by the Secretariat of State in 2017 and 2018 to Neustar Australia, two of which with a value of AUD 1.236 million were authorized by Monsignor Becciu on 17/5/2017 and 6/6/2018.”

“Obviously, these are different payments from those of 11/9/2015 which I allegedly authorized.  What was the purpose?  Where did the money go after Neustar?” Pell asked.

The cardinal ended his statement by saying that “truth is the daughter of time.”

“Let us see,” Pell said.

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