Pre-trial hearings in Vatican City took an unexpected turn Wednesday, looping Pope Francis into deliberations over the Secretariat of State’s financial scandal trial.
Lawyers for the defense put Pope Francis squarely in the middle of the case, and even raised the idea of deposing the pope as a witness, while urging a judge to dismiss the criminal trial, over the procedural and evidentiary issues that have plagued its preliminary stage for months.
Defense attorneys for defendants in the trial said Nov. 17 they want to know what the pope told prosecutors, when he told them, and how that information was used as prosecutors gathered evidence against their clients.
The lawyers even floated the idea of asking the pope to testify in the case— a legally problematic and politically high-stakes proposition. But is it one Francis should consider?
At the court hearing Nov 17, lawyers for the defense flagged a few seconds of audio among hours of witness interview recordings turned over by prosecutors.
In the clip, deputy promoter of justice Alessandro Diddi can be heard interrupting Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, once a deputy to Cardinal Angelo Becciu at the Secretariat of State, as Perlasca gives an account of the London property fiasco.
As Perlasca explained on tape how the Vatican approved plans to acquire a London property in 2018 — plans which allegedly saw the Vatican extorted for millions — Diddi told him “Monsignor, what you are saying has nothing to do with it. We went to the Holy Father and asked him what happened.”
That short clip, lawyers argued Wednesday, suggests that Pope Francis had been interviewed by prosecutors as a witness. Since no records of a papal interview were filed as evidence, defense lawyers say the accused were denied the right to defend themselves.
Diddi told the judges on Wednesday that the pope wasn’t a witness in the case, and prosecutors had never questioned him. Diddi said he was referring on the tape to statements made by Francis during a 2019 in-flight press conference, when Francis spoke about how the initial investigation had been triggered, and said that he had authorized prosecutors to raid the offices of officials at the Secretariat of State and the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority.
The defense argued that simply doesn’t line up with what Diddi is heard suggesting on the tapes. Either prosecutors are withholding key testimony from the pope, they said, or they led Perlasca to believe the pope had talked to them, as a way to intimidate the priest into skewing his evidence — either way, the defense lawyers say, the case should be thrown out.
It is anyone’s guess what the judges will decide when hearings resume Dec. 1. But there is one person who could settle the issue, and that’s the pope himself.
No one knows for sure how much the pope understood or approved the mechanics of the London deal or how in the loop he was kept, but those questions seem relevant enough: we do know Francis granted a family audience to Gianluigi Torzi, the man accused of holding control of the building to ransom, at the very same time Torzi was supposed to be extorting the Vatican.
As absolute monarch, Francis cannot be compelled to testify in a trial prosecuted on his behalf, before a court which sits in his name. But lawyers suggested Wednesday that he could be asked, respectfully, to grant the judges an audience to clear things up.
There would likely be a strong papal instinct to avoid personal involvement in the trial — and a lot could go very wrong. While defense lawyers claim Perlasca’s evidence cannot be trusted because, as a cleric, he wouldn’t say anything in his testimony which could suggest the pope was not being entirely forthcoming about what he knew and approved, there’s no reason to believe others facing charges, like Cardinal Angelo Becciu, would have similar reservations.
The whole financial trial, two years in the making, and the credibility of Franicis’ financial reforming agenda could collapse into a farce if the defendants end up proving he ultimately authorized the mess they are being charged with.
On the other hand, even if the pope never talks to the judges, he’s already been turning the wheels of justice to make this trial happen — an involvement which has been both messy and essential.
The raids the pope authorized in 2019, which included the AIF’s offices, were seen as a violation of the agency’s independence and authority. They triggered the resignations of several senior AIF figures, and saw its suspension from the Egmont Group, an international network of financial intelligence agencies. But they also resulted in criminal charges against the agency’s president and director.
The interviews with Perlasca, the last of which were recorded in late August and early September last year, also led prosecutors to visit the pope again in September, 2020, where they laid out a range of evidence against Cardinal Becciu. The pope summarily demanded Becciu’s resignation, both from his curial office and his rights as a cardinal.
Francis faced criticism for that from Becciu’s friends and apologists in the press, who painted the move as summary justice by the pope, and said he had proclaimed Becciu guilty before any formal charges had been made against him.
Yet, in asking for the resignation of a cabinet minister facing criminal charges of abuse of office, Francis was arguably only doing what any credible head of government should have done in similar circumstances. More importantly, making Becciu give up his rights as a cardinal was a crucial legal step in allowing him to face trial at all, a necessity which was underlined by several further changes to the Vatican’s penal code made by the pope in the last 12 months.
It’s possible the judges will come back when the hearings resume next month, call an end to the pretrial wrangling, and decide it’s time to try the evidence. But even if they do, it would not wave away the questions about what the pope knew, and when.
Moreover, the defense will likely claim this just shows there’s no such thing as due process or a fair hearing in a Vatican City court — and depending on who, if anyone, is found guilty of what, that could have real repercussions for the Holy See’s relationship with Italy.
While the risks of getting further involved are real, the pope could yet decide he’s already so personally involved in the process, and his credibility as a reformer so tied to the outcome, that going all-in and talking to the judges himself is his best option.
The alternative could risk the trial collapsing, along with all confidence in the reforms he’s staked his pontificate on enacting.