Analysis: Amid new testimonies, Vatican corruption trial points to key question

A hearing in the Vatican finance trial on May 20, 2022 A hearing in the Vatican finance trial on May 20, 2022. | Vatican Media.

The hearings at the Vatican’s corruption trial resumed last week and shed light on new aspects of the “trial of the century” and the broader context of Vatican finances.

Behind every decision and litigation, in the end, one can glimpse a power struggle, whether it is big or small, systemic or personal.

Primarily, the trial revolves around the Secretariat of State’s investment in luxury real estate in London. However, it also explores further criminal allegations.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, for instance, also faces charges for allocating money from the Secretariat of State to Caritas in his native region. The Sardinian is furthermore called to answer for the engagement of Cecilia Marogna as a consultant to the Secretariat of State.

However, the big deal at the center of the trial is the luxury property investment.

The Secretariat of State bought shares of the property on London’s Sloane Avenue and repeatedly changed brokers — apparently to make the investment profitable — before deciding to buy the property, only to sell it at a considerable loss.

The court will determine if the businessmen who profited on the Secretariat of State’s investment behaved legally and in accordance with the contracts.

A broader scenario emerges

The trial also digs into financial details. However, taking a look at the broader scenario emerging from the investigations is essential to understanding what happened.

After a two-month break, the hearings resumed on Sept. 28 with interrogations of the defendant Fabrizio Tirabassi, a former official of the administrative section of the Vatican Secretariat of State, and the lawyer Nicola Squillace.

For now, only two witnesses have been heard: Roberto Lolato, who acted as consultant to the Vatican promoter of justice to extricate himself from the terms of the deal, and Alessandro Cassinis Righini, auditor general of the Holy See.

Let’s start with the testimony of Cassinis Righini, made on Sept. 30. 

A climate of hostility and use of Peter’s Pence

The auditor not only disclosed a climate of hostility for his work in the Vatican and especially on the part of the Secretariat of State, but he also went so far as to point out that advice on investments was not just about the soundness of investments.

This statement was made with all the competence of an auditor, who is, above all, to ensure that the accounts are in order and compliant with international standards.

Cassinis Righini also stressed that that was not the way to manage the money from Peter’s Pence, and when asked, he said he was confident that it was indeed Peter’s Pence’s money.

The question of whether this is the case or simply a case of “mistaken identity” has been raised previously. The Secretariat of State has had an account since 1939 called the “Conto Obolo,” (Obolo is the Italian for “pence”).

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The auditor also contested the operations of the Secretariat of State. He said that the Vatican department’s assets of more than 900 million euros were almost all in Switzerland. He spoke of 516 million euros or 564 million euros on two occasions. 

A question of audits 

The Secretariat of State has always had autonomy in the management of funds. So much so that there is a rescript from Pope Francis of Dec. 5, 2016, which reaffirms the independence of the Secretariat of State. 

The rescript ended a dispute in 2016 when accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was tasked with auditing the Vatican accounts.

The Secretariat of State opposed the transparency initiative’s brief and then redefined the contract with PwC to play an assisting role, “adaptable to the Holy See’s needs.”

The aftermath of this was reflected in the testimony of Cassinis Righini. He described a clash between those who wanted to defend the Holy See and those who, in reality, wanted to make a company out of the Holy See.

In a climate of tension, it is easy to create enmities. Cassinis Righini also stressed that it would have been better not to pursue the contract with Gianluigi Torzi. 

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Torzi had taken over the management of the London Palace real estate fund, keeping the unique 1,000 shares with voting rights for himself. Cassinis Righini said that once he was involved in the analysis of the contracts, he would immediately let it be known that the negotiations would have to be stopped.

But the negotiations were not interrupted. According to the available testimonies and interrogations, this decision was made by Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, then head of the administration of the Secretariat of State, who also dealt with the negotiations in London without a lawyer from the Holy See.

Yet Perlasca was not on the list of the first 27 witnesses presented by the promoter of justice. The prosecution might have decided that Perlasca’s documented testimony was already sufficient.

The president of the Vatican Tribunal, Giuseppe Pignatone, urged to include Perlasca among the witnesses. However, it turned out that Vatican prosecutor Alessandro Diddi wanted to summon him only toward the end of his list of witnesses. Certainly, Perlasca’s absence from the first number of witnesses was striking.

Who made what money?

Another aspect is the management of Vatican finances, which has been family-oriented for a long time.

Faced with Tirabassi’s desire to leave the Secretariat of State in 2004, the then director of administration, Monsignor Gianfranco Piovano, gave him the authorization to practice outside the Vatican and a power of attorney for advice with Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS). This Swiss bank held part of the funds of the Secretariat of State.

From 2004 to 2009, the year in which the Holy See ended the relationship with UBS, Tirabassi earned 1.36 million euros in dividends. That is to say, he made about 200,000 euros each year.

With the termination of the relationship with UBS, this “bonus” ended.

The question of Tirabassi’s wealth was the subject of much of his interrogation, aimed at ascertaining whether the office of the Secretariat of State took commissions or other amounts of money.

The courtroom heard that everything was legal and above board.

A cautioning word from the tribunal president

Before starting the phase of listening to the witnesses, Pignatone invited everyone to be precise and concise, reminding witnesses that everything was on record. 

At the same time, he recalled that he had allowed a broad debate, “also admitting questions that would have been inadmissible.”

In this way, Pignatone made it clear that he was aware of procedural flaws but that, at the same time, he would ensure smooth proceedings.

A note about the consultant Lolato: He worked in the office of the auditor general from 2016 to 2019 and was then moved to the Vatican’s Gendarmerie to collaborate in the investigation. He was alongside Cassinis Righini in the auditor’s first appraisals of the property.

Cassinis Righini first said he was sure that the pope did not know anything about the investment but that it was known to the high levels of the Secretariat of State. 

However, he then had to admit that he couldn’t say for sure if the pope knew.

Plausible deniability? 

Cassinis Righini testified that decisions were made that required explicit authorization from superiors.

Based on this testimony, it seems unlikely that no one informed Pope Francis, let alone his Secretary of State. 

The pontiff was photographed in Santa Marta with Gianluigi Torzi on Dec. 26, 2018, when Torzi was negotiating his exit from the deal.

These latest testimonies at the trial thus provide a broader scenario that raises numerous questions — even if it helps to understand the climate at the beginning of the investigation.

The key question is just how and why the Secretariat of State’s investments were made — and this question awaits an answer.