The Vatican finance trial begins today. Here’s what you need to know

Hannah Brockhaus   By Hannah Brockhaus for CNA

Digital Storm via

Vatican City, Jul 27, 2021 / 01:55 am (CNA).

On Tuesday, the Vatican court is holding the first hearing in a trial against 10 people charged with committing financial crimes against the Holy See.

The Vatican finance trial is unprecedented in modern times. Among the defendants is Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the first cardinal to be tried by the tribunal of the Vatican City State since Pope Francis changed the rules to allow it in April.

The first hearing, on July 27, will be the arraignment, when prosecutors will inform defendants of the criminal charges against them and the accused will enter their pleas of “guilty” or “not guilty.”

The tribunal has also set a second hearing date for July 28, which may or may not take place before the court adjourns for a summer recess.

Who is involved in the trial, and what is the likely outcome?

The Court

The finance trial will take place in a multi-purpose room inside the Vatican Museums recently renovated to allow more space for hearings.

The trial’s outcome will be decided by the Vatican City State’s court of first instance, a panel of three judges.

The Vatican’s lay judges, who have each been appointed by the pope, are led by tribunal president Giuseppe Pignatone, a retired Italian prosecutor.

The investigation’s chief prosecutors, called Promoters of Justice, are the Italian lawyers Alessandro Diddi and Roberto Zannotti.

The prosecutors will be representing the interests of the Holy See, and those the court has identified to be the parties injured by the alleged crimes: The Secretariat of State and the IOR (commonly called the “Vatican bank”.)

The Charges

In the trial, the Vatican will attempt to prosecute Cardinal Angelo Becciu, formerly number two at the Secretariat of State, for embezzlement and abuse of office related to several scandals surrounding his time working in the powerful curial department.

The main scandal is the secretariat’s purchase, from 2014 to 2018, of an investment property at 60 Sloane Avenue in London. The deal, investigators argue, turned out to be cooked up by bad actors who took advantage of Vatican money to finance their own debts from prior deals that went wrong.

Prosecutors have charged Italian businessmen Raffaele Mincione and Gianluigi Torzi, who negotiated and brokered the Secretariat of State’s purchase of the property with help from longtime Vatican investment manager Enrico Crasso.

Mincione has been charged with embezzlement, fraud, abuse of office, misappropriation, and self-money laundering, and Torzi with extortion, embezzlement, fraud, misappropriation, money laundering, and self-money laundering.

Nicola Squillace, a lawyer who worked with Torzi, faces the same charges he does minus extortion.

Crasso, who is the manager of the Centurion Global Fund in which the Holy See is the principal investor, faces charges of corruption, embezzlement, extortion, money laundering, self-money laundering, fraud, abuse of office, falsifying a public document, and falsifying a private document.

The Vatican has also charged three corporations owned by Crasso with fraud.

Additionally, prosecutors have asserted that two officials at the Secretariat of State were involved in the fraud. Fabrizio Tirabassi, who oversaw investments, has been charged with corruption, extortion, embezzlement, fraud, and abuse of office. Msgr. Mauro Carlino, who worked with him, has been charged with extortion and abuse of office.

René Brülhart and Tommaso Di Ruzza, respectively the former president and former director of the Vatican’s internal financial watchdog, have been charged with abuse of office. Di Ruzza is also charged with embezzlement and violation of confidentiality.

Another defendant in the trial is Cecilia Marogna, a self-described security consultant, who has been charged with embezzlement following an investigation into reports that she received hundreds of thousands of euros from the Secretariat in connection with Becciu, and that she spent the money earmarked for charity on luxury goods and vacations.

The Evidence

Vatican prosecutors will be making their case against the defendants based on documents, financial records, and witness testimony.

Based on information in a 488-page charge sheet reviewed by CNA, other people who may be called to the witness stand during the trial include Luciano Capaldo, manager of the London building at 60 Sloane Avenue, and Manuele Intendente, who was reportedly present at meetings leading to Torzi’s brokerage of the final stage of the London deal in 2018.

One Secretariat of State official who was also investigated because of his involvement in the London investment, but who has not been charged in this trial, is Msgr. Alberto Perlasca. Prosecutors identified Perlasca’s testimony, provided over the course of several interviews, as being important for reconstructing “some central moments” in the affair.

Investigators have also gained access to emails and text messages related to the charges.

The Defense

None of the defendants has admitted wrongdoing, while Brülhart, Di Ruzza, and Becciu have all said that they are looking forward to defending their innocence in court.

While most of the accused have declined to be interviewed ahead of the trial, some have given some indications of what their defense may include.

One of them is Cecilia Marogna, who has said that she interacted with Italian secret service agents and that she was paid by Cardinal Becciu to create dossiers of incriminating information on Vatican personnel. (Becciu has denied all wrongdoing.)

In addition to two lawyers, Marogna’s defense team also includes an ex-Italian intelligence agent, Riccardo Sindoca, who is working as a legal consultant.

Through Sindoca, Marogna told the media last month that her “relationship of trust” with Becciu “remains unchanged.” She also attempted to cast doubt on claims that the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was ignorant of what she was doing within the Secretariat.

According to some Italian media, Marogna has plans to put Parolin on the witness stand, along with a figure who used to work for the now-defunct secret service of the Italian military, SISMI.

Brülhart is alleged to have had a consulting deal at the Secretariat of State at the same time that he was president of the Vatican’s internal financial watchdog, which is responsible for notifying judicial authorities about potential financial misconduct. His lawyer has said that the arrangement was legitimate and approved by Secretariat of State officials.

Becciu’s lawyer told the Catholic website The Pillar this month that the “alleged consulting deal” was “properly authorized and overseen by His Eminence Cardinal Parolin, without any involvement of His Eminence Cardinal Becciu,” indicating a possible direction of Becciu’s defense.

The Outcome

We do not yet know how the Vatican judges will rule and what sentences they will give. The ability to achieve convictions will depend on the competency of the prosecutors, the quality of the investigation, and the strength of the evidence.

If convicted, the accused will have the opportunity to appeal.

In the charge sheet, prosecutors said that former secretariat official Fabrizio Tirabassi, if found guilty of embezzlement, could face three to five years in jail, a perpetual ban from public office, and a fine of at least 5,000 euros (around $5,900.)

Cardinal Parolin told French media La Croix this month that he believes the trial will be the moment of “judicial truth.”

He also said earlier this month that he hoped the trial would be “brief.” But the tribunal’s record on trying cases does not support that outcome.

In January, Angelo Caloia, a former president of the IOR, was sentenced to eight years and 11 months in prison for money laundering and aggravated embezzlement. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 12,500 euros (around $14,700).

The conclusion of the trial, which began in 2018, marked the first time the Vatican had issued a prison sentence for financial crimes.

The sentence fell between an on-site Vatican inspection by Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering watchdog, and the publication of its report on the Vatican’s compliance with international financial standards.

The watchdog group’s assessment was that the sanctions in two Vatican convictions for self-laundering in 2018 and 2019 were “not proportionate and dissuasive.”

Moneyval also expressed doubt about the Vatican court’s ability to resolve complex financial cases in a timely manner.

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