Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series. Click here for part one.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu’s eight-year tenure in the Vatican Secretariat of State has left a trail of scandal and moral wreckage that makes for sensational headlines. But that may be obscuring the more significant and under-reported aspect of Holy See’s corruption problem, and that is the apparent involvement of Pope Francis himself, as well as numerous favored subordinates whose misbehavior and checkered pasts seem to have been completely overlooked.
Cardinal Becciu himself functioned for many years as a case in point. His blatant attacks and obstruction against Vatican auditors, in coordination with Vatican prosecutors, were carried out in broad daylight by people who answered directly to Pope Francis. And he operated with a very clear enjoyment of impunity from both the pontiff and from his immediate superior Pietro Parolin.
Despite Becciu’s long public record of troubling and suspicious behavior, Pope Francis did not admonish him nor remove him from his position, but actually made him a cardinal in 2018 and appointed him as Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. Becciu appeared to be an untouchable favorite of the pope, and there is little indication that this situation would have changed if an internal Vatican report on investigations into Becciu’s investments hadn’t been leaked to the most eminent of Vaticanista exposé journalists, Emiliano Fittipaldi of L’Espresso.
Cardinal Becciu case forced into the light by leak of documents
In early October of 2019, Fittipaldi wrote an article exposing the fact that the Vatican Gendarmerie had carried out raids on the Secretariat of State and the Holy See’s Financial Information Authority (AIF) as part of an investigation of suspicious financial activities, which appeared to be homing in on several low-level actors at the two agencies, as well as the president of the board of directors of the the AIF, René Brülhart and some private financiers. However, Fittipaldi’s article also mentioned the involvement of Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, his “substitute” or second-in-command, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, and the previous substitute, Cardinal Angelo Becciu.
The leak to Fittipaldi was clearly upsetting to Pope Francis, who expressed concern that it might do harm to those who were under investigation, complaining that the it was “injurious to the dignity of persons and of the principle of the presumption of innocence.” He quickly obtained the resignation of the commander of the gendarmerie, Domenico Giani.
However, it was impossible to hide the facts of the case from the public. The Vatican admitted that the raids had occurred, and that both written and electronic records had been confiscated. A year later, in late 2020, Becciu was forced by Pope Francis to renounce his privileges as cardinal and his leadership of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.
It is unclear what Pope Francis’ precise motives are for finally turning on his chief fixer and personal confidant. But it seems most likely that he was forced by the media exposure to sacrifice one of his favorites to protect two others who are more valuable to him: Parolin and Peña Parra. Although Parolin was Becciu’s immediate superior and was in charge of the Secretariat of State while his agency repeatedly acted to block investigations into the secretariat’s management of investments, and although Peña Parra has overseen the investments for years, neither have been charged with any crimes, on the claim that they were not sufficiently informed of the situation.
The Holy See’s own press release on the prosecution of Becciu, issued through Vatican News, offers a vague explanation for why Parolin and Peña Parra are being spared, quoting Vatican prosecutors stating that the two were not “effectively informed to be fully aware of the juridical effects that the different categories of actions would cause” in the management of the investments.
Francis seems to be uncomfortably conscious of the appearance of selective justice and has begun to repair his relationship with Becciu with open shows of sympathy for his fallen deputy. He made a phone call to Becciu within weeks of removing him which Becciu described as “comforting” and “a ray of light.” He then joined Becciu in his private apartment to celebrate the Mass of Holy Thursday with him this year.
Francis followed this up with radio interview on September 1 that was notably publicized by the Vatican in which he frankly stated his closeness to Becciu and strongly hinted at a preference for a particular outcome in the trial: acquittal. “I hope with all my heart that [Becciu] is innocent,” he told Radio Cope. “Besides, he was a collaborator of mine and helped me a lot. He is a person whom I have a certain esteem as a person, that is to say that my wish is that he turns out well. … In any case, justice will decide.”
Adding weight to this thesis is the fact that the trial of Becciu appears to be the result not of an initiative by Pope Francis, but of Becciu himself, who responded to his removal from power with complaints of injustice and filed suit in secular courts seeking damages for losing the chance to be elected pope. Only a few weeks after he was forced to resign, Becciu began to publicly state his desire for a public trial, and other defendants in the case expressed similar sentiments. An acquittal after a formal process would enable Pope Francis to claim he has done due diligence in rooting out corruption, while leaving his former lieutenant unharmed.
Selective prosecution raises eyebrows
Other, less powerful actors have also been chosen to take a fall, and the selection has raised eyebrows. While Parolin and Peña Parra have had no charges filed against them, Msgr. Mauro Carlino, Cardinal Becciu’s former secretary, is being prosecuted – although he would appear to have been simply obeying the orders of the powerful Becciu. Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, who also worked in the Secretariat of State and was involved in the investments, appears to have been spared only because he proved useful as a prosecutorial witness against Becciu.
Some charges, particularly for reportedly profiting unjustly from middleman transactions or outright embezzlement, are uncontroversial. However, Vatican prosecutors have also charged René Brülhart, who had resigned as President of the Board of Directors of the Financial Information Authority in 2019 after Vatican police raided his auditors and shut down the agency, for “overlooking the anomalies of the London transaction.” Critics have noted that the AIF’s own constitution did not give it oversight of the Secretariat of State, and that the charges appear to be political payback by prosecutors against yet another auditor. Brülhart is vigorously contesting the charges, and at least one of his former board member of the AIF, Marc Odendall, has said he believes they are motivated by the personal animus of the prosecutor.
Some of the charges have led one British court to openly ask why Pietro Parolin and Edgar Peña Parra have not been charged themselves. When one of the defendants in the case, a financier named Gianluigi Torzi, contested a freeze of his assets in Britain made at the behest of Vatican prosecutors, the judge responding to the motion expressed skepticism that Torzi’s behavior hadn’t been knowingly approved by Peña Parra, and that Pietro Parolin was completely in the dark.
Calling the Vatican’s “non-disclosures and misrepresentations” against Torzi, “appalling,” Judge Tony Baumgartner of Southwark Crown Court noted incredulously that Peña Parra, and Pietro Parolin “must have had the wool pulled completely over their eyes,” adding that “nowhere in the papers . . . is there any indication that Archbishop Peña Parra or Cardinal Parolin have provided . . .a witness statement” explaining how they were supposedly fooled by Torzi into signing his contract for the management of real estate in London.
“I find it difficult to accept any suggestion that Archbishop Peña Parra would have signed such a document without familiarising himself with the documents he authorised Monsignor Perlasca to execute, given the apparent significance of the transaction and the substantial sums of money involved,” wrote Baumgartner, who also expressed surprise that “no suggestion is made” that “Archbishop Peña Parra was part of the conspiracy.”
Baumgartner lifted the asset freeze against Torzi. In mid-October, Italy’s Supreme Court overturned an arrest warrant issued against him. Increasingly, the prosecution of Torzi appears to be little more than an attempt to blame him for decisions made by officials in the Holy See who, until now, enjoy a perfect impunity.
Martinelli trial establishes disturbing precedent
A corruption trial that follows much of the same pattern as that of the Becciu case, and may foreshadow its outcome, was completed only a few weeks ago, quietly terminating while the press was focused on Becciu’s trial.
After evidence emerged in the Italian media in 2017 that accusations of sex abuse committed at the Vatican’s St. Pius X Pre-Seminary had been ignored or covered up for years by the pope’s subordinates, the Holy See opened a new investigation and placed the accused on trial: Fr. Gabriele Martinelli, accused of using his favored status with the pre-seminary’s rector to sexually abuse a fellow pre-seminarian, and Fr. Enrico Radice, accused of favoring and covering up for Martinelli while acting as rector of the institution.
It emerged at the trial that the diocese that has ordained Martinelli has concluded “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Martinelli had engaged in “sexually inappropriate practices” for a total of six years, from the age of 14 to the age of 20. However, the court rejected the testimony of the younger student that he had been forced by Martinelli to engage in sex acts, although his testimony was confirmed by at least one other student. It also dismissed some of the charges on the grounds that the accused was under the age of 16, and therefore not criminally liable under Vatican law.
On October 6, the court announced its verdict: complete acquittal of both Martinelli and Radice on all charges. It appears that despite the clear evidence that Martinelli engaged in “sexually inappropriate behavior” for six years while in the pre-seminary and up to the age of 20, he will be permitted to continue as a priest, and is believed when he claims he didn’t force himself on his younger peer. His diocese has dismissed his previous behavior as a result of transient “immaturity.”
Becciu case is tip of corruption iceberg
The Becciu case is only one of several troubling cases of Pope Francis apparently turning a selectively blind eye to the misbehavior of his favorites, most of which have never been subject to a public trial. A similar example can be found in the case of the prelate the Italian media has dubbed the “vice pope,” Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodríguez Maradiaga, and his former auxiliary bishop Juan José Pineda Fasquelle.
Rodríguez Maradiaga is one of the Francis’ most important confidants, and seems to have been instrumental in his election as pope in 2013. He was made the coordinator of the Council of Cardinal Advisers, the pope’s elite “Senate” charged with carrying out Francis’ showcase reform project, the restructuring of the Holy See itself.
In 2016 and 2017, Honduran and international media began reporting on the corrupt management of the Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa by Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga. According to the reports, Maradiaga had been removing about half a million dollars per year for a period of several years from the Catholic University of Honduras for purposes that have never been accounted for.
Maradiaga was also accused of facilitating and repeatedly covering up the predatory sexual misbehavior of his auxiliary bishop, who openly lived at the archbishop’s residence with his boyfriend, a layman dressed as a priest. Pineda Fasquelle himself has been unable to account for over a million dollars he received of government funds given to the Church for charitable purposes, which witnesses claim were used to purchase expensive gifts for boyfriends and first-class plane trips to Spain.
Additionally, the reporting of Italian Vaticanista Emiliano Fittipaldi and the National Catholic Register’s Edward Pentin has revealed that Maradiaga lost over a million dollars of Church money in a financial scam that he recommended to the Dean of the Vatican Ambassador Corps, Allejandro Valladares. Fittipaldi obtained archdiocesan financial records showing that the transfers received by Maradiaga from the University of Honduras were kept “off the books.” Maradiaga defends the transfers as normal business but has never accounted for their use, and regarding the financial scam he has responded with vague, ambiguous denials and denunciations of the reporters who revealed it.
Valladares’s widow, Martha Alegría Reichmann, who was a close friend of the cardinal for decades, has confirmed these accusations, and says she and her husband were victims of the cardinal himself, who recommended the same financial scam to the couple. Her book-length account of Maradiaga’s misdeeds, which I personally translated, relates that the family lost its life savings in the scheme, which they were led to believe by Maradiaga was a legitimate investment, following which the cardinal abandoned them to their fate.
Although the apostolic nuncio and later an appointed Vatican investigator collected dozens of testimonies in Honduras regarding the malfeasance and personal misbehavior of Rodríguez Maradiaga and Pineda Fasquelle, Pope Francis ultimately dismissed the evidence and publicly portrayed Maradiaga as a victim of slander.
Alegría Reichmann says that she received a private audience with the pope, who promised her that he would give her justice, and has since abandoned her case without giving any verdict, despite repeated attempts to reach him through the Secretary of State Pietro Parolin. Following the Vatican investigation, the now-discredited Pineda Fasquelle was allowed to resign and simply disappear; his whereabouts are currently unknown.
Alegría Reichmann has been left without her life savings, and the Church’s money has never been recovered. Pope Francis confirmed and renewed Rodríguez Maradiaga’s tenure as Coordinator of the Council of Cardinal Advisers, and has allowed the cardinal to continue as Archbishop of Tegucigalpa more than three years beyond the canonical retirement age of 75.
“On November 21, 2017 the pope told me that he was well aware of my case, that he had read my letters and that he had instructed the Secretariat of State to resolve my problem,” writes Alegría Reichmann. “He also told me that I could count on all his ‘good will’ when he gave me his blessing by making the sign of the cross on my forehead.” However, “it seems that Pope Francis knew that the matter would remain unresolved and washed his hands of it. I wrote a total of five letters to the pope, and never received any response.”
“The pope is the pope!” writes Alegría Reichmann. “What can prevent him from remedying a serious fault committed by his “right hand man”? Nothing and no one can stop him. It was perfectly clear that the good will he offered me was false.”
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