ROME—A rare trial that puts a cardinal, his “lady,” and several con men in the dock inside the hallowed halls of the Holy See will start in earnest on Tuesday amid concerns that Pope Francis has made sure all 10 defendants will be convicted.
It should be noted that the Vatican does not pretend to be a democracy. The pope is for all intents and purposes an authoritarian leader who can hire and fire anyone in his government at will. That he also makes the laws without committee, changes rules without consensus, and delivers decrees with impunity usually works without major issues. But the defense teams in this high profile case argue that they are now caught in the gray area between who the pope likes and who he doesn’t.
The trial involves a €350 million property purchase in London with funds meant for the poor said to be swindled from the papal charity fund by trusted bankers. According to a 487-page indictment handed down in June, charity money meant to free a captive nun in Colombia also allegedly went instead to kit out a female consultant with designer bags and fancy shoes.
The only woman on trial, Cecilia Marogna, was a “security consultant” rumored to be a close acquaintance of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, a 73-year-old papal nemesis Pope Francis fired last September. “It’s all surreal. Up until yesterday... I felt I was a friend of the Pope, the faithful executor of the Pope,” Becciu, who is the highest-ranking prelate to ever face such charges, said in an interview after he was canned. “Then the Pope told me that he no longer had faith in me because he got a report from magistrates that I committed an act of misappropriation.”
All 10 defendants face charges ranging from embezzlement and money laundering to abuse of power and extortion. In addition, more than 40 companies are also named as potentially complicit, especially on the charges of money laundering. Becciu is charged for his role in the disastrous London deal, which cost the Vatican losses of more than $415 million, in addition to allegedly funneling funds to his brother’s charity and Morgona’s company in Slovenia to the tune of more than $1,000,000. They all deny culpability and have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
But defense lawyers have argued—in a slew of motions hastily filed last week—that the fact that the Holy See is not a signatory to any international convention that guarantees fair trials means there is no way any of those facing charges will get one.
Among the motions filed are claims of procedural violations, among them that the prosecution failed to hand over discovery documents including evidence from a turncoat who was a former associate of the defendants. Fabio Viglione, attorney for the cardinal, told reporters that these violations are “harmful” to the defendants’ rights and could adversely impact their right to a fair trial.
Giuseppe Pignatone—an anti-mafia judge who the pope handpicked for this case—ordered prosecutors to hand over more evidence, but Viglione says the papal prosecutors refused, citing both privacy and logistical issues. The issue of these motions will likely be the first order of business on Tuesday morning, though the judge is expected to dismiss most of them.
Other key evidence the papal prosecutors were supposed to release was held back due to unsaid issues, according to defense lawyers. And the way the Vatican judicial system is set up—and overseen by the one true leader, Pope Francis—the judge does not have to allow any of the more than 30 defense lawyers the right to call witnesses—instead deciding ad hoc who can testify and about what—the defense lawyers claim in many of the petitions filed to the court that have been leaked by them to the press.
The judge was not only appointed by the pope, but has a direct line to him (and vice versa) and has signed an oath of loyalty and obedience to the pontiff. The Vatican has said it will not comment on the trial until all the appeals, if any, have been exhausted, which could take years.
What makes this case so hard to win for the defense is the fact that the pope personally called for the investigation back in 2019, once telling reporters on board a papal flight that he asked investigators to check into the curious London property buy and to raid his own secretary of state’s office. And he has made it clear that he wants his prosecutors—or promoters of justice, as they are called in the Vatican judiciary system— to leave no stone unturned even if it was necessary to “derogate” from existing laws, as laid out by four executive orders he issued during the two-year investigation.
Several of the pack of more than 30 defense lawyers held court with the press, including The Daily Beast, on the sidelines of the preliminary hearing in July to try to get their side of the story out. The Vatican press office is notoriously buttoned up and gave the defense lawyers no official opportunity or venue to speak to the press. They have also not commented at all on the trial and say they don’t intend to, leaving defense lawyers little else but to leak official motions to make sure they don’t disappear into thin air if the judge decides to address them outside open court.
They say that the way this will go comes down to papal preference and that the divide within the Catholic Church has become so toxic that the pope openly sides with his supporters. The defendant Becciu, who also held his own press conference outside Vatican City recently, is clearly in the other camp which includes those who still support former Pope Benedict XVI and who tend to think Francis is too liberal. The divide has neared a schism deep inside the church, where most high-ranking cardinals are blatantly anti- or pro-Francis and are seen, in turn, by the pope and his inner circle as either friends or enemies.