Updated with further statements and details.
Vatican prosecutors have indicted a cardinal on charges of embezzlement, abuse of office, and criminal conspiracy, in connection with the Sloane Avenue, London, real estate development scandal that first rocked the Holy See in 2019.
Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu – former Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and one-time Sostituto or “chief of staff” in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State – is the highest-ranking cleric to face criminal charges under the “civil” law of Vatican City.
Nine other individuals face criminal charges in connection with the real estate deal – eight laymen and one mid-level cleric – as well as four companies in which several of the indicted individuals have or at one time held senior leadership positions.
Through his lawyer, Cardinal Becciu again forcefully denied criminal wrongdoing and claimed he is the victim of a frame-job and a smear campaign.
“I am the victim of a plot hatched against me,” Cardinal Becciu said in the statement, “and I have been waiting for a long time to know the accusations against me, to allow myself promptly to deny them and prove to the world my absolute innocence.”
Becciu described himself as “suffering in silence” over long months since he was stripped of his office and rights as a cardinal, citing his “respect for, and protection of the Church,” to which he says he has dedicated his “entire life.”
Through his attorney, however, Cardinal Becciu has in fact threatened legal action against several figures, including journalists and mastheads.
“Only by considering this great injustice as a test of faith can I find the strength to fight this battle of truth,” Cardinal Becciu said in the statement.
“Finally,” Cardinal Becciu said in the statement, “the moment for clarification is coming, and the court will be able to discover the absolute falsity of the accusations against me and the dark plots that evidently supported and fed them.”
The laundry list includes some interesting names and corresponding indictments, not least of which is that of René Brülhart, the highly respected former head of the Vatican’s financial intelligence unit. Documents obtained by Italian reporters show that Brülhart had tried to put the brakes on the deal and was quietly working with other financial watchdogs.
Brülhart is charged with “abuse of office” according to the press release from the Holy See’s press office on Saturday morning.
In a statement to journalists, Brülhart said he learned of the charges against him in the press, and called his indictment a “procedural blunder” that would “immediately clarified by the organs of Vatican justice.”
“Notwithstanding the fact that I have not yet received any formal notification in accordance with Vatican law despite what has been reported in the press,” Brulhart said, “I note that this matter constitutes a procedural blunder that will be immediately clarified by the organs of Vatican justice as soon as the defense will be able to exercise its rights.”
“I have always carried out my functions and duties with correctness, loyalty and in the exclusive interest of the Holy See and its organs,” Brülhart said. “I face this matter with serenity in the conviction that the accusations against me will fully disappear.”
“With my lawyer, Professor Filippo Dinacci,” Brulhart continued, “we are already at work because the truth about my innocence will emerge as soon as possible.”
Brülhart left his position as head of the Vatican’s financial intelligence unit (then styled the Financial Information Authority or AIF) in November of 2019. The Vatican maintained that his five-year mandate had expired, but Vatican watchers and senior AIF officials intimated that he was effectively dismissed in the wake of a Vatican police raid on AIF offices and offices in the Secretariat of State.
Pope Francis personally authorised the raid, which led to the AIF’s temporary suspension from the Egmont Group of international financial intelligence units, after the information obtained in the search-and-seizure operation reached the public.
Financial intelligence units depend on a high level of discretion and even secrecy in order to do their work. As Brülhart explained to the AP in a 2019 interview, “You have to ensure full confidentiality of this information and you also have to secure this information accordingly.”
“With this seizure on the premises of AIF,” Brulhart said, “those obligations were definitely not respected.”
Marogna et al.
Other figures include Cecilia Marogna, the stylish 40-year-old “security consultant” and native of Sardinia (like Cardinal Becciu), suspected of taking €500,000 in Vatican money through a company registered to her in Slovenia. She is charged with embezzlement, though she has denied criminal wrongdoing.
Enrico Crasso, an Italian businessman and manager of Centurion Global, is charged with embezzlement, corruption, extortion, money laundering and self-laundering, fraud, abuse of office, falsification of documents, and forgery. Crasso has denied wrongdoing.
The former Director of the Vatican’s financial intelligence unit, Tommaso Di Ruzza, is charged with embezzlement, abuse of office and violation of official secrecy.
Italian businessman, Raffaele Mincione is charged with embezzlement, fraud, abuse of office, embezzlement and self-laundering.
Italian businessman Gianluigi Torzi is charged with extortion, embezzlement, fraud, and money laundering (self-laundering and laundering towards companies).
Both Mincione and Torzi were external managers – essentially middlemen – at different times in the Sloane Avenue deal, and both have denied wrongdoing.
Fabrizio Tirabassi – a layman and Vatican official who reportedly acted as go-between on the deal – faces charges of corruption, extortion, embezzlement, fraud and abuse of office. In written evidence given to a London court, Torzi alleges that Tirabassi offered him a prostitute as “thanks” for his work on the Sloane Ave project, and also alleges that Tirabassi levelled threats against him and his family.
Milan-based attorney Nicola Squillace, according to Torzi a figure who attempted to help him structure the Sloane Ave deal, is charged with fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and self-laundering.
Msgr. Carlino — the “other” cleric
Msgr. Mauro Carlino is the only other cleric to face charges. Carlino worked under Becciu and alongside Tirabassi in the Secretariat of State. He was dismissed from his position at the time of the October 2019 raid on AIF and State offices in the Vatican.
Through his attorney, Msgr. Carlino said that he, too, had learned of the formal charges through the press, and expressed “surprise and regret” over the development, saying that his official conduct had always been “carried out in the exclusive interest of the Vatican Secretariat of State and on disposition of the Superiors, to whom Mons. Carlino has always given loyal and dutiful obedience.”
Msgr. Carlino claimed his efforts actually saved the Vatican some €5 million against the €20 million Torzi allegedly sought in service fees.
“It seems at least incomprehensible,” Msgr. Carlino said through his lawyer, “that a meritorious activity, already ascertained in its factual terms, which did not entail any personal advantage,” but, “on the contrary, determined a significant economic saving for the Secretariat of State, could have given rise to a request for an indictment.”
The statement from Msgr. Carlino’s lawyers also noted the “singular brevity” of the term within which the trial is scheduled to begin — July 27, according to the Vatican’s statement — especially noteworthy given the “extremely voluminous investigation, which lasted almost two years and which had wide media coverage,” and involved foreign jurisdictions.
The statement questioned the effect of such procedural haste in so complex and complicated a matter.
The statement from Msgr. Carlino’s camp said that the trial will nonetheless “be the occasion for the verification of the total non-existence of the accusations against Msgr. Mauro Carlino and for the recognition of his profound ethical integrity,” and expressed “full confidence in the work of the Vatican judiciary.”
The Vatican’s take
The statement from the press Office of the Holy See says the indictments are the fruit of investigations launched in July 2019, following a complaint from the Institute for Works of Religion (the IOR or so-called “Vatican bank”) and the Vatican’s Office of the Auditor General.
The statement claims that the investigations took place with “full synergy between the Office of the Promoter of Justice (the Vatican prosecutor) and the section of the Judicial Police of the Vatican’s Corps of Gendarmes (the Vatican police).
“Preliminary activities,” the statement says, “were also carried out in close and fruitful collaboration with the Rome Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Rome office of the Economic-Financial Unit (GICEF) of Italy’s treasury police (Guardia di Finanza),” and in “appreciable cooperation” with Italian prosecutors and judicial police in Milan, Bari, Trent, Cagliari and Sassari.
There has been international cooperation as well, according to the Vatican’s statement, with “numerous other countries,” including Great Britain, Jersey, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates.
A British judge earlier this year took Vatican prosecutors to task over “appalling” misrepresentation of the facts in their case against Torzi, and ordered the Vatican to pay Torzi’s legal fees in Britain, after they sought and obtained an asset seizure in connection with their investigation of the Sloane Avenue deal and Torzi’s alleged role in it.
Judge Tony Baumgartner of Southwark Crown Court reversed another judge’s earlier seizure order, saying that there was no “reasonable cause to believe that Mr. Torzi has benefited from criminal conduct,” and that the “non-disclosures and misrepresentations” in the Vatican’s case as presented were “so appalling” that he would reverse the order.
Torzi was eventually arrested in London, on the request of an Italian judge.
The Vatican statement says their preliminary inquiries “have allowed to bring to light a vast network of relationships with financial market operators that generated substantial losses for Vatican finances,” some of which drew “on resources destined for the works of personal charity of the Holy Father.”
The use of Peter’s Pence money – for which a collection is made each year from the faithful around the world, technically for “the mission of the Holy See” but frequently touted as an opportunity for the faithful to participate in papal charitable initiatives apt to assist the poorest of the world’s poor – has been a key driver of this and other financial scandals that have plagued the Vatican in recent years.
“The judicial initiative,” the statement says, “is directly linked to the indications and reforms of His Holiness, Pope Francis, in the work of transparency and reorganization of Vatican finances,” which the Vatican says their prosecutors’ theory will show “was thwarted by illegal and prejudicial speculative activities.”
This is a developing story.
*This story has been updated to include denials of wrongdoing and statements, as well as details regarding Vatican prosecutors’ handling of an asset seizure in the UK.
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