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The Italian supreme court isn’t stopping the fight in Vatican financial trial

It was supposed to be a knockout.

An Italian court decision last year, issued in October, was widely hailed as a haymaker punch to a staggering, struggling, stammering Vatican attempt at prosecution of ten indicted figures, including a once-powerful cardinal, a web of businessman, and a would-be femme fatale.

The decision, on its face, was simple: the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation sent back for reconsideration the decision of a lower appeals court on the Italian criminal indictment of Gianluigi Torzi, the businessman at the center of the Vatican financial scandal.

The Supreme Court of Cassation, Rome. Credit: Alamy stock photo

The details of the decision were not released at the time. There was no copy of the court’s proceedings. But defense lawyers said the decision was so significant it would send Vatican prosecutors to the mat, and see the entire criminal case down for the count.

Most journalists and court-watchers took them at their word.

Until late last week, that is, when the full text of the court’s decision was released. The court rejected an effort by Torzi’s lawyers to paint the Vatican’s judicial process as illegitimate. It  appeared to rule out any new appeals by Vatican defendants aiming to claim they could not get justice inside the court of St. Peter.

Far from a knockout, ultimately, the Italian court decision was not really about the Vatican at all.

Torzi, you see, is charged with money laundering and tax evasion crimes in Italy, because of the millions of euros he secured (allegedly by extortion) from the Vatican in exchange for turning over control of a London building, which he was hired to buy for the Secretariat of State in 2018. Torzi had asked Italy to vacate that charge because he said Vatican prosecutors were bungling everything, and really had no case against him. He might have thought he had them on the ropes, but the Italian court didn’t fall for it.

The Italian judges did chastise Italian prosecutors for failing to share documents and information which could have proved useful for Torzi’s defense.

But, as seasoned analysts have already pointed out, the Italian court’s ruling on the conduct of Italian prosecutors pursuing Torzi has nothing to do with the Vatican’s case against him, or with prosecutors in Vatican City, who turned all the relevant information over to their Italian counterparts as requested.

The Italian court also knocked down a key legal argument mounted by Torzi’s lawyers, one raised by other defendants in the Vatican trial: that the Holy See is effectively running a kangaroo court aimed at railroading the accused and denying them due process.

Torzi’s lawyers argued that Italian prosecutors should not be allowed to rely on information gathered and passed to them by their counterparts across the Tiber, because the Vatican judicial system is unfit for purpose "and devoid of defensive guarantees.”

That argument, the Italian supreme court found, is “without foundation.”

Torzi’s lawyers alleged that the Vatican is “a non-EU country, not bound by international agreements in criminal matters.” Similar complaints were raised by lawyers and commentators around the pre-trial hearings at the Vatican’s own court.

By focusing on procedural missteps by prosecutors and Pope Francis’ proximity to events in the case, Torzi’s legal strategy seems to be to discredit the entire Vatican judicial system and, by extension, the sovereign authority of the Holy See to convene a court and try accused criminals at all.

There certainly remain questions which the pope would be best placed to answer, and ongoing uncertainty about what to do with a head of state who could serve as a material witness, these have yet to be accepted by any court, either in the Vatican, Italy, or elsewhere, as creating a bar to the trial’s legitimacy or ability to proceed.

Lurking behind some of the arguments has been the sometimes-implied, sometimes-more-explicit threat that some of the defendants might appeal to their home governments to protect them from the Vatican’s supposed theocratic star-chamber process. If that was the plan, the judges’ ruling in the Torzi case would seem to lay waste to its viability.

“The relationship of cooperation with the Holy See has, for some time, been developed through bilateral relations,” the Italian court found, while upholding the reciprocity of the two sovereign jurisdictions in criminal matters.

As for the Vatican’s courts existing outside any international standards of justice, "what the applicant claims is not true, that is, that the Vatican City State has not adhered to any international convention on judicial matters." The judges went on to cite several international conventions to which the Holy See has signed Vatican City up, including a UN convention on combating international organized crime, and an accord with the EU specifically on the detection and prosecution of financial crimes.

Several outlets have reported that the Italian court’s decision effectively nullifies the extradition warrant out against Torzi, who is currently in London. But, the Italian supreme court’s October decision notwithstanding, a UK judge ruled in November that the process for his extradition to Italy would continue.

Torzi’s UK lawyers mounted a similar line of defense in that case, attacking the credibility of the Vatican’s courts and prosecutors in a bid to stop his return to Italy to face charges there. But those expecting UK courts to express a dim view of Vatican justice have been similarly disappointed thus far.

In Torzi’s case, Judge Michael Snow, who pronounced himself “satisfied that whatever the rights or wrongs of the case brought by the Vatican City State may be, these are not something I am required to rule upon or should rule upon."

Meanwhile, Raffele Mincione, the businessman who sold the Vatican the London building, after years of managing hundreds of millions of euros for them, has been trying to sue the Secretariat of State in London, seeking a court ruling that he acted in good faith in all his dealings which could serve as a shield against charges in Vatican City.

In Mincione’s case, UK judges have proved equally resistant to the argument that Vatican justice is no justice at all. “The substance of the matter is that there is a criminal investigation with which a competent criminal court is seised,” Judge Simon Salzedo ruled, deferring Mincione’s suit indefinitely, pending resolution of the Vatican’s prosecution.

The Vatican court is set to resume its hearings next week, with the judges having set a Jan. 25 deadline for prosecutors to re-charge Mincone and others after the reopening of the investigative phase related to several of the charges.

It remains to be seen which, if any, of the charges originally filed by prosecutors in July will be dropped, and which renewed. But what does seem clear is that the fight will continue in the Vatican court, and judges in Italy and the UK have no interest in stopping it.

The bell has rung, to signal the close of another round. And surprising the oddsmakers and the ringside pundits, the Vatican’s prosecutors are still standing, maybe even a step steadier. But they’re also still looking for a knockout punch of their own.

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