Jul 13, 2024  |  
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Nicole Winfield

NextImg:A cardinal and 9 others will learn their fate in a Vatican financial trial after 2 years of hearings

VATICAN CITY — A once-powerful cardinal and nine other people learn their fates Saturday when a Vatican tribunal hands down verdicts in a complicated financial trial that has aired the tiny city state’s dirty laundry and tested its justice system.

At the start of the hearing, Judge Giuseppe Pignatone praised prosecutors and defense attorneys alike for their professionalism in what he acknowledged was a “certainly unusual” trial for the Vatican in terms of its complexity. He stressed that the tribunal had tried, “within the limits … of the legal framework in force” to guarantee ample space for both sides to present their case, and in particular the defense.

The three-judge panel then went into closed consultations pending a late afternoon reading of the verdicts in the converted courtroom in the Vatican Museums, where the two sides have sparred for 2½ years over the details of a money-losing investment in a luxury London property.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the first-ever cardinal to be prosecuted in the Vatican’s criminal court, is accused of embezzlement-related charges in two tangents of the London deal and faces up to seven years in prison if convicted. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Unlike most defendants, Becciu attended nearly all of the 86 hearings, during which 69 witnesses were heard, saying Pope Francis clearly wanted him to face court judgment after Francis himself forced his resignation and removed his privileges as a cardinal before he was even charged.

The trial has raised questions about the rule of law in the city state and Francis’ power as absolute monarch, given that he wields supreme legislative, executive and judicial authority and has exercised it in ways the defense says jeopardized a fair trial.

PHOTOS: A cardinal and 9 others will learn their fate in a Vatican financial trial after 2 years of hearings

The defense attorneys did praise Pignatone’s even-handedness and said they were able to present their arguments amply. But they lamented the Vatican’s outdated procedural norms gave prosecutors enormous leeway to withhold evidence and otherwise pursue their investigation nearly unimpeded.

In addition to Becciu, prosecutors charged nine others with a host of alleged financial crimes stemming from the secretariat of state’s 350 million euro investment in developing a former Harrod’s warehouse into luxury apartments. Prosecutors allege Vatican monsignors and brokers fleeced the Holy See of tens of millions of euros in fees and commissions and then extorted the Holy See for 15 million euros to cede control of the building.

Prosecutors are seeking convictions for nearly 50 different charges of fraud, embezzlement, money-laundering, corruption, abuse of office and extortion. They are seeking prison terms from three to 13 years and damages of over 400 million euros to try to recover the estimated 200 million euros they say the Holy See lost in the bad deals.

The trial was initially seen as a sign of Francis’ financial reforms and willingness to crack down on alleged financial misdeeds in the Vatican. But it had something of a reputational boomerang for the Holy See, with revelations of vendettas, espionage and even ransom payments to Islamic militants.

The secretariat of state, for example, is seeking damages to fund a marketing campaign to try to repair the reputational harm it says it incurred. Even the Vatican communications department said the trial itself had been a “stress test” for the legal system.

Much of the London case rested on the passage of the property from one London broker to another in late 2018. Prosecutors allege the second broker, Gianluigi Torzi, hoodwinked the Vatican by maneuvering to secure full control of the building that he relinquished only when the Vatican paid him off 15 million euros.

For Vatican prosecutors, that amounted to extortion. For the defense - and a British judge who rejected Vatican requests to seize Torzi’s assets - it was a negotiated exit from a legally binding contract.

The two former managers of the Vatican’s financial watchdog, Rene Bruelhart and Tommaso Di Ruzza, were accused of abuse of office for not blocking the payment to Torzi and for not reporting it all to Vatican prosecutors.

But in testimony that brought Francis into the heart of the trial, they argued that Francis himself had asked them to help the secretariat of state wrest control of the property from Torzi once the Vatican realized it didn’t actually own the building.

They cited written testimony from the Vatican chief of staff, Monsignor Edgar Pena Parra, who said Vatican lawyers had advised against suing Torzi since their case was so weak. The Vatican chose to negotiate a payout with Torzi because that option was considered best in terms of cost, risk and outcome.

“It also appeared to be purely aligned with the will of the superior,” he said, referring to Francis, who he said wanted to “turn the page and start over.”

The original London investigation spawned two other tangents that involved the star defendant, Becciu, once one of Francis’ top advisers and himself considered a papal contender.

Prosecutors accused Becciu of embezzlement for sending 125,000 euros in Vatican money to a Sardinian charity run by his brother. Becciu argued that the local bishop requested the money to build a bakery to employ at-risk youths and that the money remained in the diocesan coffers.

Becciu was also accused of paying a Sardinian woman, Cecilia Marogna, for her intelligence services. Prosecutors traced some 575,000 euros in wire transfers from the Vatican to a Slovenian front company owned by Marogna and said she used the money to buy luxury goods and fund vacations.

Becciu said he thought the money was going to pay a British security firm to negotiate the release of Gloria Narvaez, a Colombian nun taken hostage by Islamic militants in Mali in 2017.

He said Francis authorized up to 1 million euros to liberate the nun, an astonishing admission that the Vatican was willing to make ransom payment to al-Qaida-linked militants.

Marogna, who is also on trial, denied wrongdoing.