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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Explained: The trial of Cardinal Becciu, and what it means for Pope Francis’ reform measures

The unprecedented trial involves a very senior clergyman, a London property deal worth millions, and the Vatican old guard's alleged pushback against attempts to make the Catholic Church's functioning more transparent and accountable

Written by Yashee , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 6, 2021 1:42:19 pm
Cardinal Angelo Becciu talks to journalists during a press conference in Rome. (AP Photo: Gregorio Borgia, File)

A historic trial opened on July 27 in Vatican City, significant for several reasons. For one, it is the largest trial to take place within the city-state, with 10 people — including senior Vatican officials and a Cardinal — accused of financial crimes. Cardinal Angelo Becciu is the highest-ranked cleric in the Vatican to be indicted, on charges of corruption and abuse of office, among others. The trial marks a milestone in Pope Francis’s attempts to usher in reforms, which include cleaning up the Vatican’s finances.

A Cardinal going to trial in court is a rare spectacle. Cardinals are very high up in the Roman Catholic clergy, taking the tile of ‘Eminence’ and second in precedence only to the Pope. Giovanni Angelo Becciu is a Cardinal who has held major posts, including Substitute for General Affairs in the Secretariat of State, the second most powerful official in the Holy See’s bureaucracy who has direct and frequent access to the Pope. He was most recently head of the office that decides new saints, and was made to step down from last year amid the embezzlement probe.

Until last year, Cardinals in the Vatican could only be tried by a court of three peers. However, in April, Pope Francis decreed that senior members of the clergy could be prosecuted in lay criminal courts. Thus, on July 27, Cardinal Becciu had to be present in a courtroom, passing through metal detectors for a hearing that lasted eight hours. If convicted, he can go to jail.

The trial has been adjourned till October 5.

What is the trial about?

The trial centres around the Vatican’s Secretariat of State buying a building in London’s upmarket Sloane Avenue, for which an initial payment of $200 million was made allegedly out of Church funds meant for charitable purposes. The deal proved loss-making, costing the Vatican millions of dollars donated by Christians around the world — a fund which is called Peter’s Pence – and thus attracting an internal probe.

Who is Cardinal Becciu and what is he accused of?

Cardinal Becciu, 72, spent the early part of his career in the Vatican’s diplomatic service. From 2011 to 2018, he served as Substitute for General Affairs in the Secretariat of State. He was made a Cardinal in 2018 by Pope Francis, and in the same year, became Prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

In September 2020, when the London deal probe was underway, he had to resign and give up all rights of a Cardinal, including voting to elect the next Pope. He, however, was allowed to keep the title of Cardinal.

But his role in the London deal is not the only accusation against Becciu.

After his resignation last year, which came on the heels of a meeting with the Pope, Becciu said Francis charged him with giving away Church money to his family. “The Holy Father explained that I had given favours to my brothers and their businesses with Church money… but I am certain there are no crimes,” he was quoted as saying by Italian newspaper Domani. According to Becciu, the money given to his brother’s co-operative in Sardinia was put to charitable use.

Becciu also approved payments to another accused Cecilia Marogna, which were allegedly spent on designer clothes, handbags, and in spas. The defendants have said the funds were for, in Marogna’s words, running a “parallel diplomacy” to help missionaries in conflict zones, and to secure the release of a nun kidnapped in Colombia. Marogna was arrested last year. According to the BBC, she has also denied being the Cardinal’s mistress.

In the London deal, he is accused of embezzlement, abuse of office, and trying to make a Vatican official recant.

During the trial, Becciu, as quoted by The Washington Post, said, “Finally the moment of clarity is coming… the tribunal will be able to assess the absolute falsehood of the allegations against me and the obscure plots that have clearly been supporting and feeding them.”

Pope Francis’s reforms

In his papacy, Pope Francis has brought in several measures to make the functioning of the Church more accountable and transparent. Apart from allowing tribunals to prosecute Cardinals, he abolished the “pontifical secret”, banned Vatican employees from accepting gifts amounting to more than Euros 40, and mandated cardinals and managers to disclose their investments, “to make sure they align with the doctrine of the church”, according to NPR.

In Cardinal Becciu’s case, the Pope allowing the indictment of such a senior clergyman can be read as a statement of his intent. Indeed, The Guardian quoted Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, the prefect of the secretariat for the economy, as saying, “I think [the trial] marks a turning point that can lead to greater credibility for the Holy See in economic matters. The fact that this trial is taking place shows that the internal controls have worked: the accusations have come from within the Vatican.”

Challenges in the way

However, experts have said the Pope’s attempts at reform haven’t exactly aroused enthusiasm in the Vatican’s old guard, of which Cardinal Becciu was a member. Jason Berry, American journalist and author of ‘Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church’, told indianexpress.com, that “systemic inertia” in the Vatican bureaucracy “breeds resistance to genuine reform”.

“The Roman Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, has historically been a largely Italian power structure. That dimension has changed to a degree in recent years, but most Curial staffers do not leave when a new pope arrives — as is the case with a new president or prime minister, who installs his own people. Systemic inertia breeds resistance to genuine reform,” Berry said.

He added: “Pope Francis, for example, empaneled a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, but the Curial officials who ran the meetings ignored much of what the key members wanted. The most important member, the Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, resigned in protest.”

The New York Times wrote of Becciu in a report, “He emerged as an important infighter, and a major character in conspiracies about alleged attempts to undercut financial reforms, when he suspended an audit of all Vatican departments by PricewaterhouseCoopers. That audit had been approved by Cardinal George Pell of Australia, whom Francis had brought in as the Vatican’s chief economic official.”

Pell had to return to Australia to face trial for charges of sexual abuse, of which he was cleared in May 2020. The same NYT report said Pell’s supporters “constantly, if quietly, attributed his removal to a conspiratorial masterstroke by Becciu.”

Pope Francis attends his weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. (AP Photo: Riccardo De Luca)

Concerns for the Church

For the Church, the trial will mean increased limelight on its potentially murky money matters, with two of the accused being officials of the Vatican’s financial watchdog. Also, the defendants could throw dirt on other senior Vatican officials, whether or not it sticks.

Who else is accused, apart from Becciu?

According to Vatican News, those charged are Mauro Carlino (former secretary of Becciu when he was Substitute of the Secretariat of State); Enrico Crasso (financial broker who managed investments for the Secretariat of State for decades); Tommaso Di Ruzza (former director of AIF, the Church’s financial regulatory body); Cecilia Marogna (who received considerable sums from the Vatican for intelligence services); Raffaele Mincione (financial broker accused of making the Vatican underwrite large shares of the fund that owned the London property and then using the money for his own investments).

Also among the 10 accused are Nicola Squillace (lawyer involved in the London building negotiations); Fabrizio Tirabassi (notetaker in the the Secretariat of State ); Gianluigi Torzi (another broker); and René Brülhart (former president of AIF).

The two AIF officials have been accused, according to Vatican magistrates, of overlooking “the anomalies of the London transaction” and that the “AIF’s behavior in the persons of its director and president seriously violated the basic rules governing supervision”.

All of them have denied any wrongdoing.

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