Tribunal convicts cardinal of embezzlement

VATICAN TRIAL. A screen shows Vatican tribunal president Giuseppe Pignatone reading the verdict of a trial against Cardinal Angelo Becciu and nine other defendants, in the Vatican press room, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023.
VATICAN TRIAL. A screen shows Vatican tribunal president Giuseppe Pignatone reading the verdict of a trial against Cardinal Angelo Becciu and nine other defendants, in the Vatican press room, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023. AP

VATICAN CITY — A Vatican tribunal on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023, convicted a cardinal of embezzlement and sentenced him to 5 ½ years in prison in one of several verdicts handed down in a complicated financial trial that aired the city state’s dirty laundry and tested its justice system.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the first cardinal ever prosecuted by the Vatican criminal court, was absolved of several other charges and his nine co-defendants received a mixed outcome of some guilty verdicts and many acquittals of the nearly 50 charges brought against them during a 2½ year trial.

Becciu’s lawyer, Fabio Viglione, said he respected the sentence but would appeal. Prosecutor Alessandro Diddi said the outcome “showed we were correct.”

The trial focused on the Vatican secretariat of state’s 350 million euro investment in developing a former Harrod’s warehouse into luxury apartments. Prosecutors alleged 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. Becciu was accused of embezzlement-related charges in two tangents of the London deal and faced up to seven years in prison.

In the end, he was convicted of embezzlement stemming from the original Vatican investment of 200 million euros into a fund that invested in the London property. The tribunal determined canon law prohibited using church assets in such a speculative investment.

Raffaele Mincione, a London-based Italian broker who managed the fund, was also convicted of embezzlement. His lawyers immediately announced an appeal, saying they were incredulous a broker who took under management Vatican funds from Swiss banks could be convicted and sentenced to 5½ years in prison over an “obscure canonical law” that Mincione said he only learned about on Saturday.

Becciu was also convicted of embezzlement for his 125,000 euro donation of Vatican money to a charity run by his brother in Sardinia and of using Vatican money to pay an intelligence analyst who in turn was convicted of using the money for herself.

Questions

The trial had 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 had exercised it in ways the defense says jeopardized a fair trial.

The defense attorneys did praise Judge Giuseppe 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.

Prosecutors had sought 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.

In the end, the tribunal acquitted many of the suspects of many of the biggest charges, including fraud, corruption and money-laundering, determining in many cases that the crimes simply didn’t exist. But it nevertheless ordered the confiscation of 166 million euros from them and payment of civil damages to Vatican offices of 200 million euros. One defendant, Becciu’s former secretary Monsignor Mauro Carlino, was acquitted entirely.

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.

Much of the London case rested on the passage of the property from one London broker, Mincione, 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.

In the end, the tribunal convicted Torzi of several charges.

It wasn’t clear where the suspects would serve their time, if the convictions are upheld on appeal. The Vatican has a jail, but Torzi’s whereabouts weren’t immediately known and it wasn’t clear how or whether other countries would extradite the defendants to serve any sentence.

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