Expectations are high that 2021 will finally see cases brought to court from the sprawling investigation into the Holy See’s finances, especially after a series of changes to the criminal procedures of the Vatican City state.
But even as evidence of malfeasance mounts, prosecutors continue to face opposition to their work, both in public and within the Vatican.
Since 2019, prosecutors in the Vatican have been digging into the labyrinthine financial dealings of the Secretariat of State. Beginning with a complaint from the Institute for Works of Religion (don’t call it the Vatican Bank) about a mortgage request, investigators have now served nearly a dozen search warrants, and worked with Swiss authorities to freeze several bank accounts connected to the secretariat.
But from the earliest days of the process, investigators have faced opposition in the press, and inside the Vatican — much of it has called into question their integrity, and slowed the collection of evidence. That opposition seems likely to continue until a trial begins, and perhaps even through its deliberations.
Among those slowing investigations is the Secretariat of State itself. The dicastery has, for more than 18 months, insisted that questionable financial dealings were above board, even as it became the subject of raids, seizures, and suspensions.
So uncooperative were secretariat officials that Vatican investigators had to send rogatory letters, official requests for cooperation, to Swiss authorities to gain access to bank accounts and financial records which properly belong to the Holy See.
The importance of senior officials standing trial over financial allegations has been raised before, and some Vatican officials have told The Pillar privately that the issue is important among clerics working in the Vatican. At least some Vatican officials also warned months ago that curial maneuverings could try to spare senior figures from the spectacle of a trial.
But in public, serving and former secretariat officials have been at pains to deflect scrutiny. The now disgraced Cardinal Angelo Becciu, for example, initially sought to defend the London property deal as “accepted practice.”
It was reported subsequently that a secretariat official previously under Becciu’s supervision had been appointed a director of a Luxembourg holding company, while that company was allegedly being used to extort the Vatican for millions. The cardinal did not specify whether that chain of events fit into his vision of “accepted practice.”
In the press, some Vatican commentators have defended Becciu, calling his conduct a “scandal without sin,” even while pivoting eventually to call for a cardinal to stand trial as proof of real reform.
Other journalists have accused prosecutors of attempting to “discredit Becciu and distract attention from the shortcomings of the Vatican prosecutors' primary investigation into a London real estate venture,” despite also reporting on the cardinal’s payments to a woman accused of embezzlement by the Vatican.
After the pope forced his resignation in September 2020, some questioned the integrity of the Vatican’s judicial process, and painted Becciu as the victim of summary justice. But it is worth noting that Pope Francis sacked Becciu, and ordered him to resign his rights as a cardinal, only after he was presented with a dossier of evidence against him by prosecutors.
While it is true that Becciu has not been arrested or, as yet, faced trial over any accusations of financial misconduct, stripping his rights as a cardinal is a necessary legal step in making that possible - in canon law, a cardinal has the right to be judged by the pope alone, and cannot otherwise be arraigned before a Vatican City court.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin has also tried to play down the significance of financial scandals as they emerged in the department he leads, calling the London deal “opaque” but insisting he was looking into it, even as it later became clear he had personally pressured the president of the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR) to front the secretariat 150 million euros to finance the deal - kicking off the investigation in the first place.
The cardinal Secretary of State has also insisted that the fund in which his department invested hundreds of millions of euros, eventually leading to the London deal, appeared to be “well managed.” Subsequent reporting has shown the money was invested in financial products tied to Italian companies with links to organized crime, and indications of conflicts of interest between the businessmen charged with managing Holy See’s investments.
Parolin has similarly rebuffed allegations of misconduct in his department in other financial matters, claiming that his own intervention to secure another loan to finance the secretariat’s speculative investments was “carried out with fair intentions and honest means,” even though that loan was obtained from APSA, the Holy See’s central bank, despite financial regulations prohibiting APSA from engaging in commercial lending.
Pope Francis appeared to finally lose confidence - or patience - with Parolin last year, when he removed the cardinal from various financial oversight boards, including at the IOR, and stripped the secretariat of its entire asset portfolio, transferring control to APSA, and ordering the Vatican’s most powerful department to turn over legal control of all its bank accounts.
At the same time, some journalists have questioned the integrity of the investigation into financial misconduct, of Vatican prosecutors and judges, and of the pope himself. In some cases, they have suggested that the lead judge is linked to a media campaign against Becciu, and in others suggested that Pope Francis himself is using transparency reforms to deliberately “destroy” the institutions of the Holy See and the Vatican City state.
After more than eighteen months of investigations, however, prosecutors seem finally ready to bring their work to court. The most recent legal changes approved by the pope appear to nod toward separate cases, including a potential no-show by a defendant, and the possibility of civil lawsuits running parallel to criminal trials.
Long-time Vatican watchers are likely not surprised by the kind of opposition the pope’s investigators are facing in public and in private. Cardinal George Pell, who was first tasked by Pope Francis to overhaul Vatican finances, faced much of the same opposition— and indeed, from many of the same figures.
And it has long been said that Pope emeritus Benedict XVI was deeply demoralized by Vatican mismanagement and corruption before his resignation from the papacy.
Even if the Vatican’s prosecutors finally manage to bring their cases to court, one thing seems clear: They, and Pope Francis, can expect continued opposition on all sides. Francis has been adamant that he will see the investigations through to their finish. But whether his prosecutors can find the will, and the way, to inject justice and transparency into Vatican finances is not yet a done deal.