VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Cardinal Angelo Becciu said on Tuesday he wanted to comply with the wishes of Pope Francis as he attended the opening of a trial in which he stands accused along with nine others of financial crimes.
The once powerful cardinal, who previously had free rein over all Vatican buildings, passed through a metal detector like all the others on entering the makeshift Vatican courtroom, his eyes sometimes downcast.
He then sat quietly through a hearing that lasted nearly eight hours before the trial was adjourned until Oct. 5.
“The pope wanted me to go on trial. I am obedient. I am here,” Becciu, wearing a black “clergyman” suit with a priest collar, told reporters before leaving the room.
Becciu, 73, and his former secretary, Monsignor Mauro Carlino, were the only two defendants to attend Tuesday’s hearing. Both men have denied all wrongdoing. The others on trial exercised their right to be defended in absentia.
The trial mostly revolves around the purchase by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State of a building in one of London’s smartest districts.
The prosecution has accused Becciu and other former Vatican officials or employees involved in the deal of embezzlement and abuse of office, among other charges.
He is also charged with funnelling money and contracts to companies or charitable organisations controlled by his brothers on their native island of Sardinia. He denies that charge too.
The trial is taking place in a modern room in the Vatican Museums because the city state’s standard tribunal is too small due to COVID-19 restrictions.
A crucifix hung on the wall behind the dais where the three-judge panel sat. Nearby hung a large photograph of Pope Francis, the sovereign monarch of Vatican City.
Among the eight who did not attend were Italian investment brokers Gianluigi Torzi and Raffaele Mincione, both charged with embezzlement, fraud and money laundering. Torzi is also charged with extortion. Both deny any wrongdoing.
During a day dedicated mostly to procedural matters, defence lawyers asked for a long adjournment because they still had not seen all the evidence from indictments issued on July 3.
Torzi’s lawyer, Ambra Giovene, said her client, who lives in London, is contesting an Italian extradition request for non-related alleged financial crimes and had a legitimate impediment.
PROMISE NOT TO ARREST
Mincione’s lawyers said they wanted guarantees that if he attends the trial he will not be put behind bars in the Vatican, as Torzi was for 10 days in 2020.
The saga began in 2014, when the Secretariat of State invested more than 200 million euros, much of it from contributions from the faithful, in a fund run by Mincione, securing about 45% of a commercial and residential building at 60 Sloane Avenue in London’s South Kensington district.
Mincione is accused of deceiving the Vatican, which in 2018 tried to end the relationship with him.
It turned to Torzi for help in buying up the rest of the building, but later accused him of extortion.
At the time, Becciu was in the last year of his post as deputy secretary of state, a position that handles hundreds of millions of euros.
All told, the Secretariat of State sank more than 350 million euros into the investment, according to Vatican media, and suffered what Cardinal George Pell, the former Vatican treasurer, told Reuters last year were “enormous losses”.
Francis, who stripped Becciu of his immunity, fired him from his last Vatican post in 2020 for alleged nepotism.
Becciu’s lawyers said testimony against him by another Vatican official, Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, should not be admitted because Perlasca was interrogated without legal representation. The prosecution said Perlasca came to them spontaneously.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones)