ROME—A most unusual trial kicked off inside a makeshift courtroom in Rome on Tuesday involving a cardinal with a penchant for lies, bankers who allegedly swindled charity funds, and a femme fatale spy who spent Vatican money—meant to buy freedom for an abducted nun—on Prada purses. Rather appropriately, the trial took place in a makeshift courtroom set up inside the historical Vatican Museums.
The 487-page indictment, with shocking details about how bags of cash were delivered to luxury hotels, read like a Dan Brown manuscript. The case focuses on a property investment in London on which the Vatican says it lost $415 million through the nefarious actions of those on trial. In all, 10 people and three businesses face 44 charges.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu, 73, is the first high-ranking prelate to be tried in a criminal court. He was also in attendance at the trial opener on Tuesday, dressed in his clerical garb and dishing with reporters on the sidelines. “I have always been obedient to the pope,” Becciu told reporters at the trial, according to Crux Catholic website. “He has entrusted me with many missions in my life, he wanted me to come to trial and I am coming to trial. I am serene, my conscience is clear, I have the confidence that the judges will see the facts correctly and my great hope is certainty that they will recognize my innocence.”
He once led the Vatican’s saint-making arm and is charged with embezzlement, abuse of office, and witness tampering. The latter charge is based on an allegation that he leaned on Monsignor Alberto Perlasca to lie to investigators looking into what happened to hundreds of thousands of dollars meant for the pope’s charity fund. Perlasca, who was for a time a key culprit, flipped and is now the prosecution's star witness. Prosecutors promised to unveil “a rotten predatory and lucrative system” that thrived under Becciu, and Perlasca could be the one to seal the cardinal’s fate.
Becciu denies any wrongdoing and says he is being played by the others on trial with him. He claims that the purchase of a luxury 17,000-square meter London property in posh Chelsea was a thoughtful investment, no matter what others may think. After the trial, his lawyer Fabio Viglione said the cardinal was attending “with tranquility” and has faith that the evidence will “establish his innocence against all the accusations against him.”
And then there is Cecilia Marogna, the only female being tried in this case, whose relationship with Becciu has raised eyebrows. Often referred to as “the cardinal’s lady,” Marogna prefers the title “geopolitical analyst.” She stands accused of embezzling half a million dollars Becciu gave her to pay the ransom for a kidnapped Catholic nun in Columbia, and spending it on Prada and Louis Vuitton handbags, as well as boutique hotels where she is rumored to have entertained the cardinal. She says the money she received was legit, and for “intelligence-related expenses.”
Also on trial are two brokers: Italian magnate Raffaele Mincione and Gianluigi Tonzi are accused of lining each other's pockets with Vatican cash. Both have been charged with fraud, money laundering, and embezzlement. Mincione's charges are related to a 2014 fund he set up to which the Secretariat of State’s office, which was run by Becciu at the time, dumped some $235 million, of which half was spent on the posh Chelsea property and the other half in other investments, some of which performed miserably.
Around $20 million was lost in bad investments, so the Vatican diverted the money elsewhere with the help of Tonzi, who chose to pay around $47 million to Mincione. Tonzi's charges are related to him allegedly restructuring the shares in the London property and extorting $17 million from the Vatican to fix the mess he and Mincione allegedly created. The Vatican paid, and then, once they realized they'd been had, opened an investigation that led to his trial. Pope Francis, when made aware of the mess in November 2018, demanded they secure ownership of the London property in order to “turn the page and start over,” according to Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra who will testify for the Vatican state prosecutor.
Among the others standing trial are Swiss lawyer René Brülhar, who was personally chosen by Pope Benedict XVI to head the Vatican’s Financial Intelligence Unit. When his term ended in November 2019, he was immediately investigated for his role in the London property purchase, which led to the discovery that the money used to buy it wasn’t out of the usual investment fund, but out of Peter’s Pence, the pope’s personal charity fund. He is charged with abuse of office and denies any wrongdoing, and instead says the transactions were completed in a transparent manner.
About 30 defense lawyers attended the trial but only two of the ten suspects: Becciu and his former secretary, Monsignor Mauro Carlino, who is also accused of abuse of power and extortion. They both dressed in vestments.
Tuesday's hearing lasted seven hours and was mostly procedural to accommodate the large number of defendants and their lawyers. A verdict is expected before the end of the year, and all defendants face jail time and heavy fines. The next hearing will be held on October 5.