The trial, which began on July 27, 2020, at the Vatican, is not just an investigation into the financial investments of the Secretariat of State in London. It is a hat under which a broader, international anti-corruption investigation lies. Moreover, the trial itself became known as the “trial of the century” before it even began.
Ten people have been charged. Among them, for the first time, is former Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, who is charged with embezzlement, abuse of office, and attempting to mislead an investigation. On the Vatican prisoner’s dock, there will be important figures, clerical and secular employees of the Vatican Secretariat of State, people at the highest level in the Supervisory and Financial Information Authority, as well as outside figures who played a key role in this international scandal.
This group included Monsignor Mauro Carlino, who is a former Secretary of State official and secretary of former Cardinal Angelo Becciu; Cardinal Becciu’s manager and right-hand man, Fabrizio Tirabassi; former FIU president René Brülhart; FIU director Tommaso Di Ruzza; banker and financier Enrico Crasso; financier and broker Raffaele Mincione; broker Gianluigi Torzi; attorney Nicola Squillace; and alleged intelligence analyst Cecilia Marogna.
The charges brought by the Vatican prosecutor’s office (the Office of the Promoter of Justice, headed by Gian Piero Milano and deputized by Alessandro Diddi) range from abuse of office, to embezzlement, corruption, fraud, extortion, and money laundering. A range of crimes speaks for itself about the stature of the investigation and the trial itself.
White and Clerical Collars
Who are the characters in this complicated story? What is this all about? The unfortunate purchase of the building at 60 Sloane Avenue in London has been covered by the world media for two years. However, the whole story is far more complicated. Its protagonist is Angelo Becciu, who is a cardinal dismissed by Pope Francis in September 2020. He, as a prelate, for years held the very delicate and responsible position of Substitute for General Affairs in the Vatican Secretariat of State.
He was appointed to the post by Benedict XVI in 2011 as the chosen one of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who de facto had headed the Vatican as Secretary of State during the previous pontificate. Becciu’s right-hand man was prelate Alberto Perlasca known as the manager of the Vatican’s safe and today considered by some Italian media as a crown witness. He was the first to decide to cooperate with the Vatican prosecutor revealing the whole mechanism of obscure financial investments, which would be supported by the fact that his name does not appear among the accused.
Perlasca headed the so-called “Third Vatican Bank”, which is completely autonomous from the IOR (The Institute for the Works of Religion, a financial heart of the Vatican) and from the APSA (the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, responsible for economic matters). This Vatican’s financial cushion was created as early as in the 1970s, during the pontificate of Paul VI, and consisted mainly of money coming from the Peter’s pence and from taxes that Italians voluntarily donated to the Church.
For example, it was from this fund that USD 250 million was given as a voluntary contribution to the victims of the Bank Ambrosiano bankruptcy, which was estimated at USD 1.2 billion and took place during the papacy of John Paul II. Cardinal Paul Marcinkus was the head of the IOR at the time.
The Vatican is a theocratic electoral monarchy, which is absolutist and patrimonial in nature. Thus, everything is owned by the pope. “The third bank,” however, is money owned only by the Holy Father and donated to him by the worshippers for his charitable work.
Since 2011, Becciu, as a Substitute in Section I of the Secretariat of State, has influenced how to invest papal money to multiply it.
The second most important figure in the affair is Enrico Crasso. He is a banker and financier who served at the Secretariat of State at Credit Suisse, and then became the most trusted financial adviser to the colorblind managers. He was in charge of the safe of the Holy See for twenty years. He also convinced Becciu to make reckless and risky investments, and, according to investigations, diverted the pope’s money into shady hands as well.
It is to him that the Office of the Promoter of Justice brings the most serious charges: embezzlement, corruption, extortion, laundering of money and his own capital, fraud, abuse of office, forgery of public acts by a private person, and forgery of private acts.
Becciu, early in his career as dominus of papal money, wanted to invest in Angolan oil due to the personal connections he had made as Apostolic Nuncio to Angola and Cuba. The business, however, was uncertain. Crasso advised him against it and suggested something else. Through his companies in Lugano, Vatican money was diverted to speculative funds in tax havens, and these – after travelling a great distance – were returned back to the Vatican’s coffers. The operations, however, yielded too little profit.
London Affair and Beyond
When Bergoglio became a pope, he left Becciu in place. Presumably, he was unaware of the sensitivity of his function. Then, Crasso proposed to the prelate a London investment in a property formerly owned by Harrods stores. The decision was made to buy a 45% stake in the Luxembourg fund Athena Global, the remaining 55% of which was owned by financier Raffaele Mincione. From Credit Suisse in Lugano, $200 million was sent to buy a building at 60 Sloane Avenue.
Like a ping-pong ball, the money bounced between various companies in tax havens: Luxembourg, Jersey, Malta, Mauritius, and partly ended up in the accounts of an Italian financier residing in Switzerland and with an office in London.
In 2018, Pope Francis conferred the cardinal dignity on Becciu and appointed him prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Perhaps he felt even that it would be better for a cleric from Sardinia to deal with candidates for saints rather than papal money. In his place, he appointed Venezuelan prelate Edgar Peña Parra. The new substitute realized that Vatican’s investments in the Luxembourg Athena fund and in other funds (Retelit, Banca Carige, Sorgente) were making millions of dollars in losses.
In addition, a high-interest mortgage was taken out on a property in London, which was still registered at the time to an offshore Jersey company – and not even owned by the Vatican. Becciu’s reckless investment turned out to be a black hole that drained the Secretariat of State’s safe. Peña Parra left the Athena fund and said goodbye to Mincione. Unfortunately, the Vatican fell out of the frying pan and into the fire…
The new Substitute commissioned another Italian financier, Gianluigi Torzi, to complete the purchase of the London property. Torzi was to become its manager for 5 years. He demanded 30 million euros for his services and received only half. The broker turned out to be an even less trustworthy person. In relation to Torzi, Italian prosecutors were already investigating for fraud and bankruptcy.
However, the new broker had quite extensive contacts. He was represented in Italy by a well-known Milan law firm, lawyer Nicola Squillace, who also sat on the Vatican prisoner’s dock with charges of fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and own capital.
To finance the London operation, the Secretariat of State asked the Vatican’s IOR bank for an “advance” of 150 million euros. Under these circumstances, in accordance with the new norms introduced by Pope Francis, an internal investigation was launched and the Pope was informed. But by the same time, prosecutors’ offices in Rome and Milan, as well as in Switzerland, were already investigating Enrico Crasso and bribes to Venezuelan oligarchs paid with Vatican money.
In August 2019, Monsignor Peña Parra was transferred. Two months later, there was an unprecedented search by the Vatican gendarmerie at the offices of the Secretariat of State and the Office of Financial Information. Subsequently, Monsignor Mauro Carlino (a newly appointed head of the Information and Documentation Office at the Secretariat of State and formerly Cardinal Becciu’s longtime secretary), Tommaso Di Ruzza (the director of the FIU), and Fabrizio Tirabassi (a protocol officer in the Administrative Office of the Secretariat of State) were removed from their posts.
Tirabassi was one of the most influential secular employees of the most powerful dicastery of the Roman Curia, directing and managing financial investments that over time exceeded EUR 600 million. In June 2020, Swiss accounts belonging to Enrico Crasso, through which Vatican money transited, were seized.
Moreover, the intermediary, Gianluigi Torzi, was summoned to the Vatican for questioning and arrested for several days. A month later, a search was conducted in a Rome hotel room where Raffaele Mincione, the demiurge of the “London affair” was staying. Then, out of the blue, the resignation of Cardinal Angelo Becciu appeared.
In the list of names of defendants in the Vatican trial, the most surprising are those of the former president and director of the Financial Intelligence Unit. The FIU was established in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI to guarantee the full transparency and credibility of the Vatican’s financial system, and to fight “money laundering”.
René Brüelhart headed it from 2012 to 2019. The handsome Swiss lawyer was dubbed the “Vatican’s 007.” The Office of the Promoter of Justice accuses him of the crime of abuse of office. Former FIU Director Tommaso Di Ruzza faces charges of embezzlement, abuse of office, and breach of professional secrecy.
Cardinal Lady and Family in Its Own Home
Among the accused is one woman, 39-year-old Cecilia Marogna. She is a Sardinian manager who claims to be an alleged international relations expert and intelligence analyst. Already two aliases have clung to her: “Lady Cardinal” and “Lady Vatican.” Marogna is accused of embezzling Vatican’s money.
The Italian Financial Guard, executing an international Interpol warrant, arrested her in Milan in October 2020 and handed her over to the Vatican. The woman allegedly received EUR 500,000 from the Secretariat of State and had a letter of recommendation from Cardinal Becciu.
The money was supposed to be used for undercover operations related to terrorist kidnappings of clerics and for charity. It passed through the accounts of her Ljubljana-based companies without leaving a trace and was partly spent on luxury handbags, shoes, and other items. Marogna explained that these were gifts to the wives of diplomats and dictators to protect nunciatures.
The woman denied that she and Becciu had an intimate relationship. The whole story is reminiscent of the case of Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, who sat on the Vatican’s bench in the so-called “Vatileaks 2″ trial along with prelate Lucio Angelo Vallejo Balda (her lover), his associate Nicola Maio, and journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi.
In addition, other allegations hang over the former cardinal made against him by the L’Espresso weekly magazine, which are the direct cause of his dismissal. The high-ranking cleric was alleged to have financially favored his three brothers by diverting Vatican’s money to their cooperatives or companies.
Leaks to the Italian press also indicate that Becciu tried to mislead the investigation. He put pressure on prelate Alberto Perlasca, terrorizing him and instructing him on what the victim should talk about during interrogations. The former cardinal treated many members of the curia similarly, and was even able to steer some Vatican media with which he had a relationship because of his former position. Becciu was convinced that there would never be a trial…
Agnieszka Zakrzewicz – Polish journalist and writer (author of 4 books on Church and Vatican), foreign correspondent for Polish media, member of the Foreign Press Association in Italy since 2000.
The article was originally published in Polish at: https://liberte.pl/ludzie-od-pieniedzy-papieza-na-lawie-oskarzonych/
Translated by Natalia Banas