Analysis: Is the Torzi arrest a beginning or an end?

CNA 5e4efd0e506fe 182260 1 Dome of St. Peter's basilica, Vatican City. | Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

For those following the serpentine turns of the ongoing Vatican financial scandals, the arrest of Italian businessman Gianluigi Torzi on Friday was a major event. 

But exactly how "major" it will be could be determined by how narrowly prosecutors focus on Torzi himself, or if they see his arrest as the first step in unwinding the "network of companies in which some officials of the Secretariat of State were present" acknowledged by the Vatican on Friday.

In the meantime, news of the arrest has given rise to a spat of "social distancing" from those connected to the London property deal at the center of the investigation. Those most vocally distancing themselves from Torzi, insisting his alleged crimes are self-contained, may hope for a fairly limited discussion of the wider Vatican financial dealings in which Torzi played a role.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, under whose direction the Secretariat of State first became involved in the now famous London property development, insisted he never had dealings with the businessman. Torzi, he said, was unknown to him, arriving on the scene in late 2018, after he had been promoted to cardinal.

While he is apparently unfamiliar with Torzi's dealings at the secretariat, Becciu confidently predicted that "he will have to answer for a specific crime for which he alone is responsible."

Becciu's comments were substantially echoed by his former subordinate and close collaborator at the secretariat, Msgr. Alberto Perlasca. The monsignor told an Italian newspaper on Monday that Torzi only became involved with the project in October 2018, and that he had personally accused him of fraud.

Perlasca, whose home and office were raised during investigations, also preemptively distanced himself from any accusations, suggesting that, while he was in charge of the secretariat's administrative office, he had little to do with managing finances for the curial department - saying that all important decisions were made either by his subordinates, or by his superiors.

Raffaele Mincione, the businessman who, for years, managed hundreds of millions in secretariat funds, investing them in his own projects and companies, has also spoken publicly to distance himself from Torzi, claiming to know him only slightly and blaming the secretariat for inserting him into the deal.

Mincione, Perlasca, and Becciu all argue that the original arrangement between the secretariat and Mincione was legally and financially sound, and that it was Becciu's replacement as sostituto, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, who allowed Torzi, the lone problem actor, into the situation.

On Saturday, Mincione, speaking ironically, suggested that Peña Parra should be arrested for his part in bringing Torzi in, while also claiming to have a photo of Torzi with the pope.

For his part, Perlasca claimed Cardinal Pietro Parolin had personally approved the controversial pass-through transaction, in which final ownership of the London property was transferred through one of Torzi's holding companies, allowing him to, allegedly, extort the Vatican for control of a building it had already paid some $300 million for.

A cynical interpretation of events might see a united front forming among those responsible for the original investment deals which led to the current situation, a shifting of responsibility onto those who came after, and an effort to stop broader - still unaddressed - questions about the secretariat's financial dealings.

An even more cynical interpretation might reasonably wonder if it could work.

Whatever the issues with Mincione's original management of the secretariat's investments – and they are significant enough for Vatican News to label them a "conflict of interest" – the specific episode that seems to have led to Torzi's arrest did come after Becciu's departure from the department and after a decision, apparently taken by Peña Parra, to sever ties with Mincione.

If Vatican prosecutors choose to focus on what Becciu has called "a specific crime for which [Torzi] alone is responsible," the chances of a wider accounting of affairs at the secretariat may be slim.

On the other hand, those same prosecutors have, so far, played a much stronger hand than many expected at the outset.

A series raids by Vatican gendarmes, beginning in October last year, have reportedly had the personal, even explicit backing of Pope Francis.

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Among those raided (and still of unconfirmed employment status) is Perlasca himself, suggesting the scope of enquiry extends beyond his own self-professed role of whistleblower against Torzi.

The raids also resulted in the (still unresolved) suspension of Fabrizio Tirabassi, a layman who worked overseeing the secretariat's investments under Perlasca and Becciu, and after their departure from the secretariat.

What conversations investigators have had – or have yet to have – with Tirabassi remain unclear. But it seems certain that some explanation will have to be given for how he ended up as a director of the holding company Torzi allegedly used to charge the Holy See for control of the London building. It seems at least possible, given the scope of the raids already carried out, that he would also be asked for a more complete account of his dealings with other business figures, like Mincione and Enrico Crasso, on the secretariat's behalf.

There are other indications that prosecutors are casting their net wider than a single transaction by Torzi.

Swiss authorities have reportedly confirmed that tens of millions of euros have been frozen in several bank accounts as part of the Vatican investigation. According to Corriere della Sera, at least some of these accounts were under the control of Mincione, Crasso, and Perlasca.

Perlasca has insisted that he has no personal accounts in Switzerland. He has also said that he "had no signature power" on secretariat accounts and that he "only had the power to sign in conjunction with another superior." "In other words: I could not move a single penny," Perlasca said.

This being the case, there would be an extensive paper trail of who authorized what transactions going back years, and it becomes difficult to see how final responsibility could be left with subordinates like Tirabassi, or to Perlasca himself.

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Similarly, if prosecutors are narrowly concerning themselves with Torzi's alleged crimes, there are not yet clearly stated reasons to freeze accounts linked to Mincione and Crasso.

Amid attempts to minimize the significance of Torzi's arrest, the signs are that investigators are pursuing far wider concerns about the secretariat's finances, concerns which may go higher than relatively obscure curial officials.

The questions for prosecutors will now become: how much latitude do they have to follow all the leads they have been given? And how much stomach is there in the Vatican to act on what they find?

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