Cardinal convicted of embezzlement in landmark Vatican court case

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A cardinal who oversaw the management of Vatican funds from 2011 to 2018 has been convicted of multiple counts of embezzlement and fraud in a landmark corruption case.

Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, once one of the most powerful figures in the Holy See, was sentenced by the Vatican’s criminal court to five years and six months in jail on Saturday in what the Italian media had dubbed the Catholic Church’s “trial of the century”.

The charges resulted from an investigation by Vatican police into the alleged misuse of church funds in an ill-fated London property investment.

The Holy See had purchased a minority stake in an office building in Knightsbridge from a fund that was founded by London-based Italian financier Raffaele Mincione, and planned to convert the building into a luxury apartment complex. However, the local council had not granted planning permission for the conversion when the Vatican bought into the project.

After spending more than €350mn to acquire the property between 2014 and 2018, the Holy See realised losses of £100mn when it sold the building to Bain Capital for £186mn last year.

During the trial — which began in July 2021 and held 86 hearings with 69 witnesses — Becciu’s lawyers argued that the cardinal was “totally unaware of the potential problems” with the real estate investment or that it was “possibly illegal”.

“Nobody ever communicated the presence of problems and risks in the investment,” his defence team wrote in a submission to the court last month.

However Mincione argued in court that the Vatican was well aware of the risks and had lost money because of its own irrational decisions.

Mincione, who was also charged in the case, was found guilty of embezzlement and money-laundering and sentenced to five years and six months in jail, though his lawyers have already said they intend to appeal.

Others involved in the complex series of real estate dealings were also convicted, including Gianluigi Torzi, whom the Vatican had later asked to help it acquire full control of the building.

Torzi was convicted of extortion, fraud and money-laundering and sentenced to six years in jail.

Enrico Crasso, a former Credit Suisse banker who had set up an independent consulting company to provide financial advice to the Holy See, was convicted of embezzlement, money-laundering and corruption and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Two members of the Holy See’s financial oversight committee were convicted of dereliction of duty and given small fines.

In total, seven people were sentenced to jail in the case and ordered to pay about €200mn in damages to the Holy See.

Becciu was also convicted of a further charge of embezzlement for sending €125,000 to a charitable organisation led by his brother which was ostensibly set up to help marginalised groups including addicts, former convicts and the unemployed.

Becciu was also convicted of fraud in connection with €575,000 given to a self-styled security expert, who was meant to use the money to free a nun kidnapped in Mali but instead spent it on holidays and a luxury shopping spree. The security consultant, Cecilia Marogna, was also convicted of fraud and sentenced to three years and nine months in prison.

A lawyer for Becciu, the first cardinal ever to stand trial in the Vatican’s criminal court, said he would appeal against the verdict.

“We will keep crying out loud that the cardinal is innocent,” said Maria Concetta Marzo, a lawyer for the cardinal.

However, the Holy See’s official Vatican News said after the verdict that the trial’s outcome — in which some of the accused were acquitted, or acquitted of some charges — showed that the proceedings had been conducted with “full respect for the rights of the defendants”.

“The magistrates . . . reasoned with complete independence on the basis of documental proof and witnesses heard, not on preconceived theories,” wrote Andrea Tornielli, editor of Vatican News.

The high-profile convictions come amid signs that Pope Francis may be growing uncomfortable with the fallout of his campaign to bring greater professionalism and accountability to the management of church finances.

In a recent meeting with Vatican auditors, he called for “merciful discretion” as they try to root out bad actors and corruption.

“The lure of corruption is so dangerous that we must be extremely vigilant,” the pontiff told the auditors. But he said that scandals “serve more to fill the pages of the newspapers than to correct behaviour”.

Pope Francis, who had vowed to clean up the church’s scandal-tainted finances and bring greater accountability, did not comment on the cardinal’s conviction in his public audience on Sunday, which was also his 87th birthday.

Video: Can the Vatican reform its finances?


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