Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Oct 5, 2020 / 01:30 pm (CNA).- Late last week, multiple Italian newspapers reported that Cardinal Angelo Becciu has been accused of sending 700,000 euros of Vatican funds to Australia during Cardinal George Pell’s trial on charges of sexual abuse.
Those reports, following Becciu’s resignation 10 days ago, come amid a flurry of speculation and interest in the Vatican financial scandal. But while headlines have suddenly grabbed global attention, the slow work of investigation and evidence remains key to resolving a still-unfolding story that has been years in the making.
Following initial reports in Italy last week, the new claims were repeated and amplified by international press this weekend to directly accuse Becciu of using Church funds to facilitate Pell’s prosecution by paying his accusers.
The allegations are, to deploy the commentariat’s preferred qualifier, “Big, if true.”
The accusation that one curial cardinal used Church funds to enable a vexatious accusation of sexual abuse against another, apparently to stymie financial reform, is very “big” indeed. But so too are the many “if’s” that come along with it.
Cardinal Becciu has denied the allegation, and, to date, the charge remains essentially unattributed, and certainly unproven.
Some reports have suggested that the claim is contained in the dossier being compiled by Vatican prosecutors building a case against Becciu for financial misconduct and corruption, and that the financial footprint of the cash travelling from Rome to Australia, via some intermediaries, has been established. But there has – so far – not been any direct attribution of the charge, or any confirmation by the office of the Promoter of Justice.
Other reports have suggested that the origin of the charge could be Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, who served as Becciu’s effective right-hand man at the Secretariat of State until Becciu was promoted out of the department in 2018.
Perlasca’s home and office were raided by investigators in February of this year, and it is widely held among Vatican officials that he is cooperating with prosecutors against Becciu, at least in part to lessen possible charges against himself.
As the head of the secretariat’s administrative office, Perlasca was directly responsible for authorizing financial transactions involving secretariat funds, and he had access to, and oversight of, accounts in banks in several jurisdictions. If money was moved, Perlasca would be uniquely placed to know – and indeed may have played a role in moving it. He would also be able to furnish prosecutors with evidence of what money went where in Australia, when, and why. And, to be sure, if it happened, there will be evidence.
For many, the story of the Vatican financial scandal has, with the sacking of Cardinal Becciu by Pope Francis 10 days ago, broken like a sudden storm – fierce and disorienting.
But for those who have followed the gathering clouds over the past several years, the thunderclap of Becciu’s “resignation” was less unexpected: It followed the raiding of several curial officials, including Perlasca, by Vatican authorities over the past year, the arrest of one of the financiers at the center of the wider scandal, and the serving of another businessman with a search and seizure warrant over the summer.
Along the way, reports have documented the links between more than one Vatican investment to more than one Swiss bank linked to allegations of money laundering. They have also outlined the complicated network of business relationships between the different businessmen involved and even with Vatican officials.
Crucial to all this reporting has been the trail of hard evidence which international financial transactions inevitably leave, even if that trail appears to have been deliberately obscured much of the time.
While the current allegation against Cardinal Becciu may be the most overtly scandalous charge yet, it remains to be proven.
Many supporters of Cardinal Pell’s Vatican reforming agenda have long noted with suspicion the convenient timing of his forced departure to Australia in 2017. Some will be tempted to treat the reported allegation that Becciu played a part in orchestrating Pell’s legal ordeal as a final vindication of their previously sotto voce thesis. Certainly, they do not lack for colorful context.
CNA has reported that Becciu frequently clashed with Pell as the Australian cardinal sought to bring Pope Francis’s financial reforms into force, and there is no shortage of Vatican anecdotes concerning Becciu’s willingness to undermine his opponents by any means he thought necessary.
Also in 2017, Becciu was responsible for the public defenestration of the Holy See’s first auditor general, Libero Milone, whom Becciu accused of “spying” on his personal finances – an allegation that now appears to reflect rather better on Milone than it does on Becciu.
In his role at the Secretariat of State, Becciu certainly seems to have had considerable latitude over use of Vatican funds, often to questionable ends.
It could be said that Becciu does not lack for means, motive, and opportunity to have done what is claimed. But Pell’s more clear-eyed allies will be acutely aware that – so far – nothing has been proven, and the current media attention being given to the allegations against Becciu does not mean it inevitably will be.
Vatican prosecutors have, so far, appeared to enjoy a remarkably free hand to pursue the evidence wherever it leads them. Sooner, rather than later, it seems likely that evidence will lead them, Cardinal Becciu, and several others into a courtroom. That will, most likely, be the first time and place that the full extent of the accusations against Becciu, and the evidence supporting them, is laid bare in public.
As the Holy See works to weather the financial fallout of years of apparent financial mismanagement, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, it has taken important steps to boost both its credibility and transparency in recent weeks and months.
By coincidence, on the Monday after Becciu’s sacking Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti money laundering watchdog arrived in Vatican City for a planned onsite inspection.
Also by coincidence, the last time they came to town was in 2017, the year both Pell and Milone left. In the report they issued after that visit, Moneyval concluded: “The overall effectiveness of the Holy See’s engagement with combating money laundering depends on the results that are achieved by the prosecution and the courts.”
That which was true then is likely to be even more so now.
Some progress has been made in flagging cases for investigation and prosecution in the Vatican. What remains to be seen is if those investigations and prosecutions can be turned into successful convictions.
Until then, nothing can be taken for granted.
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