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The Vatican Trial Part II: Long on Process, Short on Justice

The Vatican trial that began on July 27 with the naming of 10 defendants for various financial crimes is going to take a very long time due to the “complexity” involved with having so many defendants, cruxnow.com noted. Most were involved in the Vatican’s purchase of a London commercial building.

The trial will be lengthy also because of the numerous objections brought by the defense attorneys. Some “were raised against the constitution of the court itself and the Vatican’s sovereign legal system,” pillarcatholic.com stated.

 “The defendants had not been fully informed that Pope Francis signed four laws to help the procedures that preceded the trial … Also highlighted were some situations that would be considered irregular in Italy or any foreign country. The possibility for the Holy See to celebrate a fair trial was questioned in the light of the fact that not only was a special jurisdiction made but also that the defendants were not given time to read the documents – which in any case arrived incomplete to the lawyers,” Vatican expert Andrea Gagliarducci wrote.

“Cooperation activities have also been called into question, such as the exchange of intelligence information seized without criteria by the Vatican judges and only afterwards the subject of an agreement between the Court and the Financial Intelligence Authority [an internal Vatican financial watchdog] to avoid further incidents,” noted Gagliarducci

The lawyer for Enrico Crasso, an investment manager for the Vatican, “presented a motion joined by other defense teams seeking to have the case dismissed on the grounds of failures in discovery, meaning the obligation of prosecutors to turn over all files in a timely fashion, and also a lack of jurisdiction, since Crasso’s alleged crimes didn’t occur on Vatican territory,” cruxnow.com reported.

The lawyers for Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who initiated the London property deal, “questioned the fairness of the accusations against him, saying that he was not given the opportunity to give a statement to prosecutors during their investigation … Becciu’s lawyers also argued that they had yet to receive the full contents of the [testimony against him]. Vatican judges ordered the prosecution to provide video tapes of the testimony to defense lawyers by Aug. 10,” cruxnow.com stated.

The lawyers for Fabricio Tirabassi, a Vatican employee who had a deal with a Swiss bank to receive a commission when he put Vatican business its way, “don’t deny the contract with UBS, but rather insist there was no mystery about it and that Tirabassi’s superiors, who include Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, not only knew about the deal but approved it as a sort of informal ‘fringe benefit,’” cruxnow.com related.  Peña Parra was not indicted.

“Another issue is that APSA [the department holding the lion’s share of Vatican investments] and the Secretariat of State [the department purchasing the London property] were involved or informed of the operations. Why then are they claiming damages?” Gagliarducci questioned.

These “motions, objections, contesting of prosecutors’ requests, and so on, and will result in an avalanche of decisions the three-judge panel will have to make, all of which will take time,” cruxnow.com concluded.

There have been many precedents during the pontificate of Pope Francis for the objections made by the defense attorneys. As noted in Part I, keep in mind that the Vatican is a group of men claiming to be the sole legitimate moral authority in the world.

The 2015-2016 trial

The trial of five persons based on a law enacted by Pope Francis criminalizing leaks of Vatican information began on Nov. 24, 2015. Pope Francis said he had given the court the “concrete charges” against the five defendants during a Nov. 30, 2015, in-flight press conference,

Msgr. Lucio Vallejo Balda, PR specialist Francesca Chaouqui and Nicola Maio, Balda’s assistant, were accused of “forming a criminal organization and of procuring and leaking confidential documents.” The documents had been obtained while Vallejo Balda and Chaouqui were members of a papal commission regarding the administration of Vatican finance.

Journalists Emiliano Fittipaldi and Gianluigi Nuzzi were indicted for “soliciting and exercising pressure” to obtain this information and using the material in their books. Fittipaldi’s Avarice: Papers that Reveal Wealth, Scandals and Secrets in the Church of Francis and Nuzzi’s Merchants in the Temple had both been released Nov. 5.2014. “Fraud worth millions,” “the machinations of the Vatican Bank,” “the true extent of the pope’s treasury,” “offerings of the faithful withheld from charity,” “theft and trade scams” were among the subjects disclosed. 

Before the trial, Vallejo Balda and Chaouqui were arrested on Nov. 2 with the “personal approval” of Pope Francis as reported by La Stampa.

Chaouqui, who was pregnant, “was summoned to a meeting with Vatican police … She assumed it would be an hour-long affair. Instead, the 33-year-old was arrested, interrogated and held for 72 hours within the Vatican – apart from a short stint in hospital after falling ill – and says she was denied access to a lawyer. Among aspects of the case that confound her well-known defense lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, are the Vatican’s alleged repeated violations of Chaouqui’s due process rights, first by interrogating her without an attorney, by forbidding Bongiorno from defending her in the trial – she has been given a Vatican attorney instead – and by allegedly failing to put forward any documentary evidence against her client,” reported The Guardian.

The 2015-2016 trial began amid criticism from a dozen freedom-of-the-press organizations that the journalists were being prosecuted for doing their jobs.

Chaouqui’s lawyer said that she wanted Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, as well as Pope Francis’ close associates, Cardinal Santo Abril y Castello and Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, to testify.

“Overruling objections from the Vatican prosecutor,” a judge agreed that the three senior officials could be called to the stand. “The decision raises the prospect of the Church’s dirty linen being laundered in public,” Agence France-Presse reported. Abril y Castelló is president of the commission overseeing the “scandal-hit” Vatican Bank. As head of Pope Francis’ charity, Krajewski knows how much the pope actually gives to charity and how much is from donations, administration and services provided by others as noted in my blog “Pope Francis’ Personal Income: €428 Million in 2013.”   

The trial was suspended on Dec. 11, four days after the senior officials were called as witnesses ”to allow time for experts to evaluate electronic devices allegedly used by some of the defendants to communicate, to be heard.”

When the trial resumed on March 14, 2016, Vallejo Balda confessed, “Yes, I passed documents. I did it spontaneously, probably not fully lucid.”  The next day, the monsignor said he never felt threatened by the two journalists.

As the trial progressed, Chaouqui, Maio and Nuzzi professed their innocence.

On May 14, 2016, the Vatican announced that Parolin, Abril y Castelló and Krajewski “declared that they would invoke article 248, paragraph 2 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, according to which public officials shall not be compelled to give evidence of what has been confided to them as part of their duty.” They were excused from testifying.

The rest of the trial, with several more delays, centered on questioning other Vatican employees by the prosecution regarding details of working for the same commission as Vallejo Balda and Chaouqui, and how electronic devices were used.

Eight months after it began, the trial concluded. The prosecutor had presented no physical evidence against the defendants. The accuracy of the two books was never contested.  Only the monsignor had confessed to any wrongdoing while blaming the laywoman for “manipulating and controlling” him with “threats” and “pressures.” The prosecution recommended that the only woman among the five defendants receive the harshest penalty for “instigating” and “conspiring.”

On July 7, the Tribunal sentenced Vallejo Balda to 18 months in prison. Since he had already been imprisoned for 8 months, his sentence would be cut to 10 months “because he confessed,” cruxnow.com reported  

The Tribunal admitted that the Vatican had no jurisdiction over Fittipaldi and Nuzzi.

Chaouqui was found guilty of conspiring in the crime, but she was not charged with the actual leak of the documents “given the lack of evidence.” She was sentenced to 10 months in prison. The sentence was suspended.

Maio was absolved of any crime. 

After the verdicts were read, a Vatican spokesman defended the trial as “necessary” because leaked document create a “negative context” when “public opinion has the right to objective and serene information.”

Employee mistreatment

In June 2017, Libero Milone, the Vatican’s first chief auditor, was forced to resign. He was accused by Vatican police of spying and embezzlement. Milone told the Financial Times that he thinks it was “because of information he requested about hundreds of millions of dollars held ‘off the books by Vatican’ entities in Switzerland.” Vatican authorities later dropped all charges.

In November 2017, Giulio Mattietti, the Deputy Director General of the Institute for Religious Works [the Vatican Bank] was escorted outside the Vatican and removed from his position. He was never accused of any wrongdoing, cruxnow.com reported.

On Oct. 1, 2019, Vatican police raided offices of the Secretariat of State and the Financial Information Authority, known by its Italian acronym, AIF. During an in-flight press conference the next month, Pope Francis said he had issued the order for the raid. 

Along with the raid, the Vatican police issued a circular to all security personnel, including the Swiss Guards, that five employees were suspended and were banned from entering the Vatican City State. The circular had photographs of these employees designed in the manner of a “wanted” poster or mugshot.

The police also “seized their documents, computers, telephones and passports and blocked bank accounts,” Edward Pentin reported.

No charges or accusations had been made against them.

The five employees were:

Vincenzo Mauriello, noted only as a Secretariat administrative employee.

Fabrizio Tirabassi, briefly listed as a director of a holding company involved in the London purchase.

Caterina Sansone, briefly listed as a director of another holding company involved in the purchase, “only acted as a figurehead to facilitate the bureaucratic paperwork,” cruxnow.com reported.

Msgr. Mauro Carlino, also briefly listed as a director of the same company as Sansone, was “highly esteemed” according to ANSA, the Italian news service.

Tommaso Di Ruzza was director of the AIF. In response, the AIF Board of Directors issued a statement “reaffirming its full faith and trust in the professional competence and honorability of [Di Ruzza] and, moreover, commends him for the institutional work carried out in the handling of this particular case.”

Many Vatican reporters expressed outrage that the five were humiliated with a “wanted poster.” Many also thought the raid was unnecessary. “If there was corruption, can this corruption be attributed to … low ranking officials who have no power?” asked Andrea Gagliarducci. “Could not these documents and electronic devices been requested and reviewed through ordinary channels?” opined Dr. Robert Moynihan. “If these five people are to be judged responsible for whatever went wrong on the London deal, it also needs to be explained how they could carry out such a maneuver without the approval of people much higher up the food chain,” wrote John L. Allen, Jr.

A former AIF official told the Financial Times that the agency “had raised multiple financial crime cases with the Vatican’s prosecutors over several years, but these were never taken further … Perhaps there were some people who didn’t want prosecutions to happen.

On Feb. 18, 2020, documents and computers from the office and residence of Msgr. Alberto Perlasca were seized by Vatican police. “‘I would like to emphasize that the operation had been regularly approved by superiors, including the Holy Father,” Perlasca told the Financial Times.

On May 3, 2020, it was reported that all five of the suspended employees had been fired “and, no less, just hours before Francis would use his daily livestreamed Mass on the Italian Labor Day and the Church’s feast of St. Joseph the Worker to pray for workers’ rights,” cruxnow.com noted.

“The firings came directly from Francis …. To date, no evidence has been produced to suggest that [these] employees were guilty of wrongdoing. In any event, the deal for which they were being investigated had been approved by superiors in the Secretariat of State and, eventually, the pope himself,” cruxnow.com added.

Current defendant’s ill-treatment

In June 2020, GianluigiTorzi, a current defendant and investment broker in the London deal, was told to come to the Vatican “for questioning.” He was arrested and held for 10 days in the Vatican prison without being formally charged with any wrongdoing. 

In October 2020, “Vatican magistrates had Cecilia Marogna arrested in Milan and asked for the extradition of the self-styled secret service expert, recruited years earlier by Cardinal Angelo Becciu … After two weeks in prison, however, the Italian Court of Cassation released her and declared the Vatican initiative ‘null,’ because it was incorrect in form and substance,” Vatican expert Sandro Magister reported. The Court also “canceled the arrest because the request had no specific motive and ‘lacked the specific cautionary needs.’” Andrea Gagliarducci wrote in reporting for CNA

In November 2020, Vatican magistrates had the home of Fabrizio Tirabassi, one of the Vatican officials dismissed a year earlier, searched in Italy. “The Italian judiciary declared the search warrant null since the search and seizures were part of an ‘out of the ordinary request,’ with ‘evident and substantial’ illegitimate actions,” Gagliarducci reported.

In March 2021, a British court overturned an earlier decision seizing the British accounts of Torzias requested by the Vatican. In his ruling, Judge Tony Baumgartner said the Vatican’s “non-disclosures and misrepresentation” were “appalling.” Baumgartner noted that “an applicant to this court for a restraint order should be careful in relying upon facts unverified or unsupported by direct evidence, and should not unhesitatingly rely upon assertions that are not properly established on the facts,” Gagliarducci wrote.

Baumgartner also stated, “’I do not consider there is reasonable cause to believe Mr. Torzi has benefited from criminal conduct.’ He added that he found it ‘difficult to accept’ that Peña Parra had been fooled into signing Torzi’s deal. ‘It is evident,’ he wrote in his ruling, ‘that what was transpiring was a commercial negotiation between two arm’s length parties,’” per Gagliarducci.

“While Vatican officials or former officials are put on trial, it is human rights and various other rights that are on trial. Rights that the Holy See supports internationally, but which the pope has allowed to be trampled on … The risk at the end of the trial is that of a Holy See irrelevant from a diplomatic point of view because it is unable to implement commitments such as observing due process in its State.” Gagliarducci wrote.

In the end ….

This trial is for show. The statement by Fr. Juan Guerrero, “This trial marks a turning point that can bring about greater credibility of the Holy See in financial areas. The fact that this trial is taking place at all means that internal controls worked. The accusations came from inside the Vatican,” was widely reported.

It will end similarly to the 2015-2016 trial: a monsignor confessed, a lay person found guilty of conspiring was given a suspended sentence  and not convicted of leaking information due to lack of evidence, a Vatican employee was absolved and the tribunal admitted it had no jurisdiction in some cases.

The former trial lasted so long that no one except the most dedicated Vatican watchers cared about the outcome. This one, as predicted, will drag on much longer with the same result since the pope already received his favorable media attention when the trial opened.

Those who were sexually tortured as children by Catholic hierarchs, priests, brothers and nuns and their advocates have noted on social media that Pope Francis has devoted more time and resources – a two-year investigation, preparation of a 487-page indictment, appointing three judges from the Italian judiciary and three veteran Vatican prosecutors – to protect his money than he ever did to protect our children.

Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America

See also “Vatican Trial Part I: Institutional Sleaze,”

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