Cardinal Angelo Becciu’s fall from grace in the Francis papacy is unparalleled in recent Vatican history, and the Vatican’s public relations apparatus is portraying his case as an example of the pope’s commitment to cleaning up corruption within the Holy See. However, Becciu’s misbehavior was on public display for many years while he held the most intimate confidence of Pope Francis. And now evidence is emerging that indicates the pontiff was informed at least five years ago of his trusted lieutenant’s gross financial malfeasance.
Voices from within and without the Holy See are now objecting to the pope’s inconsistent system of “justice,” which appears to protect certain intimates of the pontiff while throwing others under the proverbial bus. The case is beginning to look less like a financial cleanup operation than a political one in which the criminal justice system is used to settle scores and dispose of fallen confidants, while a pliant international media uncritically repeats the Vatican’s Francis-glorifying narrative.
Becciu’s meteoric fall has all of the necessary elements of a tabloid drama. After becoming the functional equivalent of the papal chief of staff and being made cardinal prefect of a Vatican dicastery, Becciu now finds himself stripped of the privileges of the cardinalate. And he is standing trial for numerous criminal charges leveled against him by Vatican prosecutors for embezzlement, abuse of office, collaboration, and subornation, along with others associated with his investments.
Although the trial is currently on hold while prosecutors revamp their case and comply with court orders, Becciu has all of the appearance of guilt. According to the prosecution, which has reams of financial records at its disposal, the cardinal approved investments of hundreds of millions of euros in ill-founded real estate purchases, charitable donations, and other schemes that lost money but lined the pockets of various shady middle men, among which was Becciu’s own brother.
Moreover, the cardinal is accused of employing a woman for the purposes of “intelligence services,” who in turn is now accused of embezzling over half a million dollars of Vatican funds dished out to her by Becciu himself. Reports in the Italian media suggest that she spent whole nights at the prelate’s residence. She has publicly stated that Becciu paid her to spy and create dossiers on various members of the curia.
Pope Francis’ deputy long associated with ruthless coverups
Becciu’s fall is particularly notable because, in a Vatican long troubled by rumors of serious corruption, he stands out for his mafioso-like ruthlessness exercised with what appeared to be the absolute confidence and support of Pope Francis.
As early as 2014, Becciu began to act as an official public voice for dismissing concerns about Vatican corruption. After an anonymous member of the Swiss Guard told the newspaper Schweiz am Sonntag that he had been sexually propositioned 20 times by clergy, and a retired Swiss Guard commander followed up by commenting on a “homosexual network” in the Vatican, Becciu dismissed the latter’s statements, opining that “it does him no credit and offends the Swiss Guard,” and challenging him to come to him with names.
“There are those who speak about a gay lobby but no one has yet been able to figure out where this lobby is,” said Becciu. He similarly acted as the Vatican’s front man to dismiss concerns raised about the Vatileaks II exposes in 2016, defending the housing of retired cardinals like Tarcisio Bertone in luxury apartments, and indignantly proclaiming that “the Vatican is not a den of thieves. It’s an absolute falsehood to represent it that way.”
Becciu again made international headlines in April of 2016, when he acted to directly obstruct a general audit of Vatican finances sought by Cardinal George Pell, who was carrying out his mandate to implement financial reforms in the Holy See. Becciu reportedly sent a letter to every office in the Vatican bureaucracy announcing that Cardinal Pell’s authority to carry out audits had been revoked, a claim Pell later said contradicted the mandate he had received from Francis. Pell recently opined publicly that much of the financial loss associated with Becciu’s investments could have been prevented if his audits hadn’t been blocked.
Suspicions of Becciu’s motives ran so high that when Pell was brought to Australia for trial on baseless charges of pedophilia, rumors abounded that Becciu had somehow arranged for his prosecution. Reports later emerged in the media that hundreds of thousands of dollars he had sent to Australian recipients was paid to gather dirt on Pell to facilitate his prosecution, despite denials by Becciu’s attorneys.
Becciu’s hardball tactics against financial auditors continued in a very public way. In September 2017 the prelate struck again, and this time his target was the Vatican’s auditor-general, Libero Milone, a highly-respected former chairman of Deloitte Italy who had been hired to review the Holy See’s troubled finances in 2015.
After suddenly being forced to resign under threats of arrest by Vatican police, Milone told the media that he had been trying to investigate several obscure Swiss bank accounts involving investments by the Vatican Secretary of State, where Becciu held the position of “first substitute.”
“Received by the substitute at the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Becciu, I was told that the relationship of trust with the Pope had been damaged: the Holy Father was asking for my resignation,” Milone told a group of reporters after his dismissal.
“I asked for the reasons, and was provided with a few that seemed incredible to me. I responded that the accusations were false, and constructed to deceive both him and Francis; and that in any case I would speak about them with the pope. But the response was that this was not possible.”
Following Milone’s interviews, Becciu doubled down and publicly attacked Milone, telling Reuters that he “went against all the rules and was spying on the private lives of his superiors and staff, including me, and adding menacingly, “If he had not agreed to resign, we would have prosecuted him.”
Milone’s account of the affair, however, was very different. He told Reuters that he discovered evidence that his computers were being tampered with. He contracted with an outside consultant to assess the machines used by his accounting team in the Vatican and received verification that spyware had been placed in their computers that could make copies of its files.
Milone’s attorneys showed Reuters the warrants used to search and arrest Milone, which included a vague complaint that his investigations were “in clear violation” of the rules governing his department. However, Reuters noted that the statutes granted Milone “full autonomy and independence” and the power to “receive and investigate any reports on anomalous activities” within the Holy See’s bureaucracy.
“Some people got worried that I was about to uncover something I shouldn’t see,” Milone told The Financial Times in 2019. “We were getting too close to information that they wanted to be secret, and they fabricated a situation for me to be thrown out.” That information included the financial records of certain off-the-books bank accounts at the Swiss bank BSI, an institution notorious for shady financial dealings, which were used in the questionable investments Becciu is now accused of orchestrating. In the Milone case, as in the case of Cardinal Pell’s abortive audit, it appears Pope Francis did nothing to correct Becciu.
How much did Pope Francis know?
It is difficult to conclude that the pontiff was somehow unaware of the very public acts of his intimate subordinate, which would have drawn the attention of both the pontiff himself and Becciu’s immediate superior, the Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin. Becciu, in fact, was so close to Francis that he was reportedly the only official who could walk in on him without scheduling a meeting. It seems impossible that Francis was not at least aware of Becciu’s behavior.
Moreover, an anonymous former Vatican official (who most probably is Libero Milone) has now told Forbes that he personally delivered a dossier to Francis on Becciu’s illicit financial activities five years ago. The dossier had “incontrovertible” proof of Becciu’s diversion of over $2 million of Vatican funds, the source reportedly said, but “His Holiness closed the file; that was the end of it.” As a result, the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice never received the information.
Milone has told the press that he was able to meet with Pope Francis every 4 to 5 weeks after he was hired in 2015. But after April 1, 2016 he was never able to obtain another meeting with the pontiff, despite making multiple requests.
Milone isn’t the only auditor who says he was prevented from talking to Pope Francis about the scandalous ongoing obstruction of financial regulation within the Holy See. Marc Odendall, a retired investment banker who was on the board of directors of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority (AIF), the agency created by Pope Benedict to counteract financial abuse, says he resigned after he attempted to obtain an audience with Pope Francis regarding the disabling of the AIF following Francis-approved raids on the agency, but his request was vetoed by Archbishop Georg Gänswein.
Nonetheless, Odendall regards Francis as the source of the problem. “The person responsible for this is the pope,” Odendall told Forbes. “He has made the wrong decisions and appointed the wrong people, all the while pretending he is fighting against bad people.”
The involvement of the pope appears to have extended to regulations he promulgated facilitating the financial “opacity” protecting the Secretariat of State. Becciu stated in a recent interview that the Secretariat’s financial autonomy had been affirmed twice in recent years by Pope Francis, in 2016, and again in 2020. If this were not true, it would be difficult to explain the ongoing successful resistance of the dicastery to auditing and regulation efforts.
“Insiders use the term ‘Friends of Francis to explain why some Vatican officials are being prosecuted and others aren’t,” states Forbes in its exposé on the Becciu affair, adding that “dozens of Vatican sources” interviewed by the publication decry an environment in the Vatican of “self-dealing, favoritism and lack of due process that leads all the way up to the Vatican’s absolute monarch, the pope himself.”
(Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two part series. Read Part 2 here.)
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