By Philip Pullella
VATICANCITY – A landmark fraud trial of 10 people including a cardinal begins in the Vatican on Tuesday in what officials hope will be a turning point in its financial credibility and show that no-one is above the law.
The headliner at the trial is Cardinal Angelo Becciu, 73, formerly a senior official in the Vatican administration, who becomes the most senior Vatican official to be tried for financial crimes.
Pope Francis, who lifted Becciu’s immunity so he could be indicted, fired him from his last Vatican post in 2020 for alleged nepotism. Becciu has always maintained his innocence.
Another formerly prominent defendant at the trial, which mostly revolves around the purchase of a building in one of London’s smartest districts, is Swiss lawyer Rene Bruelhart, once head of Vatican’s Financial Intelligence Unit. He denies all wrongdoing.
The key outsiders are two Italian investment brokers, Gianluigi Torzi and Raffaele Mincione, both of whom have denied wrongdoing.
Hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday are expected to deal with preliminary matters and then the trial is expected to be adjourned until October, when two hearings a week will be held.
It is taking place in a makeshift courtroom in the Vatican Museums because Covid restrictions and the number of defendants, lawyers and journalists make the Vatican’s normal courtroom too small.
“I think this trial marks a turning point that can bring about greater credibility of the Holy See in financial areas,” said Father Juan Antonio Father Juan Antonio Guerrero, head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy (SPE).
“The fact that this trial is taking place at all means that internal controls worked. The accusations came from inside the Vatican,” he told the official Vatican News website.
In 2014, the Secretariat of State invested more than 200 million euros, much of it from contributions from the faithful, in a fund run by Mincione, securing about 45% of a commercial and residential building at 60 Sloane Avenue in London’s SouthKensington district.
The indictment handed down on July 3 said Mincione had tried to deceive the Vatican, which in 2018 tried to end the relationship.
It turned to Torzi for help in buying up the rest of the building, but later accused him of extortion.
At the time, Becciu was in the last year of his post as deputy secretary of state for general affairs, a powerful administrative position that handles hundreds of millions of euros.
All told, the Secretariat of State sank more than 350 million euros into the investment, according to Vatican media, and suffered what Cardinal George Pell, the former Vatican treasurer, told Reuters last year were “enormous losses”.
Becciu is charged with five counts of embezzlement, two of abuse of office, and one count of inducing a witness to perjury. He is also charged with allegedly funnelling of money and contracts to companies or charitable organisations controlled by his brothers on their native island of Sardinia.
Another Sardinian, Cecilia Marogna, 40, a woman who worked for Becciu, was charged with embezzlement. She has denied wrongdoing.
One possible early hiccup is the fact that Torzi, who lives in London, is the subject of an extradition request by Italian magistrates who want to try him for other alleged financial crimes, including fraudulent billing and tax fraud, not related to the London property.
His lawyer, Ambra Giovene, told Reuters he cannot leave London before the Italian extradition hearing and so for the time being he has what she intends to tell the Vatican court a legitimate impediment from the trial.
Last year, the pope stripped the Secretariat of State of control over its funds and transferred them to another Vatican department, with additional oversight by the SPE.