Payments from the Vatican Secretariat of State to the Australian office of a tech security company could have been used to register a top level domain name, according to an Italian media report.
But that possibility raises questions about why Cardinal Angelo Becciu previously described payments to the company as “confidential,” and why a key witness in the current Vatican financial trial reportedly told prosecutors that the payments were for the legal defense of Cardinal George Pell.
The payments, described as “classified” by Cardinal Angelo Becciu, have been at the center of years of speculation, since they coincided with the prosecution and trial of Cardinal George Pell.
A report published by the Italian edition of the website Daily Compass claims that payments from the Secretariat of State, totaling more that 2 million Australian dollars, were for the registration of the top level domain “.catholic” by the Pontifical Council for Social Communication.
Daily Compass cites a 2012 letter from the then-secretary of the Australian bishops’ conference to the-then secretary of the Vatican’s communications office, offering “support” for the Vatican plan “to acquire the generic top level domain,” which was filed with ICANN, the U.S.-based international organization responsible for internet domain names and registration.
Similar letters were filed by the bishops’ conferences of Italy and the United States, and the Secretariat of State, according to a domain registration application file reviewed by The Pillar.
The application file also lists a wholly owned subsidiary company of AusRegistry Pty Ltd as the service provider at the time of the application. AusRegistry was also the registry operator and wholesale provider for all commercial “.au” domain names, as well as non-commercial Australian domains like “.gov.au” and “.edu.au”.
AusRegistry’s own parent company, Bombora Technologies, was acquired by Neustar, a technology and security company, in 2015. Neustar has separately featured in court documents related to an ongoing federal investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
Between 2016-17, the Secretariat of State sent wire transfers amounting to more than 2 million Australian dollars to Neustar’s office in Melbourne. The Daily Compass report suggests those funds were used to cover the expenses of maintaining the .catholic domain in both English and Chinese, although ICANN filings for the domain do not include specific receipts or other documents which would confirm that possibility.
While the top level domain .catholic does not appear to host sites, it is possible that the Holy See acquired the domain to prevent others from using it to host material purporting to come from an authoritative Church source, especially in Chinese.
The cardinal was promoted from that role in June 2018, made prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, before he was forced to resign in disgrace by Pope Francis in September 2020. Vatican prosecutors subsequently filed charges of embezzlement, abuse of office, conspiracy, and witness tampering, against Becciu, for which he is currently on trial.
In the weeks after Becciu’s resignation, speculation was rife in the Italian press that the payments to Neustar could be in some way related to the prosecution of Cardinal George Pell, who left his Vatican post as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy in 2017 to return to Australia face charges of sexual abuse — charges on which he was first convicted, and subsequently exonerated by the country’s High Court.
Pell’s departure to face charges in Melbourne came just weeks after Becciu forced the resignation of Libero Milone, the Vatican’s first independent auditor general and a close colleague of Pell’s. Becciu accused Milone of “spying” on his private financial dealings and threatened him with arrest and prosecution if he refused to quit his role.
In October 2020, newspaper Corriere della Sera printed an article suggesting that the payments to Neustar “may have been used to 'buy' the accusers in the pedophile trial against Cardinal George Pell.” Pell’s eventually overturned conviction was based on the testimony of a single accuser.
In response to Italian media speculation, Becciu has repeatedly and strenuously denied any link to the allegations against Pell, or interference in his case. He has also repeatedly refused to say what the payments to Neustar were for, telling The Pillar last year that they were related to “official activities by the Secretariat of State which, by nature, are classified and couldn’t be possibly commented on.”
If the purpose of the payments to Neustar was, as suggested in the Daily Compass report, for the maintenance of the .catholic domain, it would raise questions about the necessary application of state secrecy, since the registration of the domain to the Holy See is a matter of public record and has been for nearly a decade, and was the subject of reports in the industry press at the time the application was in process.
If true, the payments being linked to the .catholic domain would also raise questions about apparent testimony from Msgr. Alberto Perlasca to prosecutors during their investigation into the Secretariat of State’s financial affairs which lead to the current trial.
In December last year, Cardinal Pell noted Becciu’s reticence to discuss the issue during an interview, and referenced evidence given by Perlasca, who formerly ran the Secretariat of State’s administrative office, to Vatican prosecutors.
“[Perlasca] said under interrogation that the money was sent to the bishops’ conference in Australia for my legal defense,” Pell said. “That’s certainly not true. We’ve asked the bishops’ conference, they received nothing. We certainly received nothing. So I have one question for Cardinal Becciu: Will he just tell us what the money was sent for?”
Becciu responded to Pell in an open letter released shortly before Christmas, calling Pell’s question “offensive to my personal dignity,” and saying that to respond would be “beneath the dignity of cardinals.”
Instead, Becciu said that he would only discuss his dealings with Neustar, which he called “high, demanding, and certainly confidential,” in court for his trial in Vatican City, when he would answer the “groundless” accusations against him “point by point.”
When Becciu appeared to answer judges questions for the first time, in March of this year, he discussed allegations he had funneled Church funds to members of his family — and insisted on his innocence. However, he declined to comment on allegations related directly to his former role at the Secretariat of State, claiming that he was unable to discuss sensitive issues because of the pontifical secret.
Becciu has not commented publicly on the Daily Compass report, however, it follows the announcement by the Vatican City court on March 30 that Pope Francis had waived the application of the pontifical secret in Becciu’s case, freeing him to face further questions from judges.
Before Pope Francis decided to permit Becciu to face questions without the cover of state secrecy, the cardinal was scheduled to return to court on April 7. But shortly after the judges announced the pope had lifted the pontifical secret, his lawyers claimed a “scheduling conflict” and delayed Becciu’s next appearance by a month.
The cardinal is now set to return to court on May 5.