VATICAN CITY –
The Vatican tribunal is weighing a case of financial fraud, heard from an unusual witness Thursday, when a secret recording of Pope Francis was played in court about the Holy See’s payments to free a nun held hostage by Al Qaeda affiliated militants.
The broadcast of the pope’s own voice in the courtroom marked a surreal new chapter in a trial that has already seen many twists and turns as Vatican judges try to determine who, if anyone, is criminally responsible for the loss of tens of millions euros worth of possessions of the Holy See. .
Vatican prosecutors introduced the recording as evidence on Thursday, saying it was part of a trove of material recently obtained from Italian financial police investigating a Sardinian charity linked to Cardinal Angelo Becciu, a one-time close associate of Francis, who is one of the 10 defendants. in the Vatican process.
Vatican prosecutors revealed that the Sardinian evidence has also been added to a new Vatican investigation investigating Becciu for alleged criminal conspiracy.
According to prosecutor Angelo Diddi, Becciu and a relative secretly recorded Francis on July 24, 2021, three days before the Vatican trial began, when Becciu spoke to him by phone from his Vatican apartment. While most of the defendants are charged in connection with the Vatican’s €350 million investment in a London property, Becciu is on trial for alleged abuse of office and embezzlement in connection with his dealings with the Sardinian charity and a self-proclaimed security agency. analyst also on trial, Cecilia Marogna.
In the recording, Becciu asks Francis to essentially confirm that the pope authorized the payments to a British company Marogna identified to negotiate the freedom of a Colombian nun kidnapped in Mali in 2017. Francis, who had just been released from a 10-day hospitalization, was familiar with the case and essentially agreed, according to several attorneys who heard the admission. The president of the tribunal ordered journalists to leave the courtroom during the playback of the recording, as it had not yet been formally admitted as evidence.
Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez was kidnapped in February 2017 in Mali by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which had funded its insurgency by kidnapping Westerners. During her captivity, the group periodically videotaped Narvaez and asked the Vatican for help.
Becciu had told the court on May 5 that he had raised her plight with Francis and that the pope had agreed to spend up to €1 million to hire British firm Inkerman Group to find the nun and secure her freedom. to set. She was finally released last year and met with the Pope.
While the recording cast dubious light on Becciu for secretly recording the pope, it substantiated claims by Becciu and other defendants that Francis was indeed familiar with, and in some cases approved of, some of the expenses at issue in the trial . There is no provision in Vatican law for the pope to be questioned during a criminal trial, but defense lawyers have said they want to ask him what he knows about the various financial decisions, saying the audio recording supported their argument that the testimony from the pope is crucial to the trial.
Prosecutors have charged Italian brokers and Vatican officials with a host of financial crimes, including fraud, embezzlement, corruption and abuse of office. In the London case, they accuse the defendants of defrauding the Holy See and then extorting €15 million from the Vatican to gain control of the property. The 10 defendants all deny wrongdoing.
After news of the new criminal conspiracy investigation broke, Becciu’s lawyers said late Thursday that they were not aware of any such investigation against the cardinal, but that either way “he strongly asserts his innocence” and was ready to state his position. clarify.
For the first time, the Vatican court heard this week that the Holy See lost more than €100m on the property transaction alone, having sold the property for some £186m this year after £275m having spent to buy it.
The Vatican official most closely involved in the deal, Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, first took the stand on Thursday in one of the most highly anticipated testimonies, immediately blaming his deputy for the fiasco. Perlasca was originally a prime suspect in the investigation, but changed his story in August 2020 and is now considered an aggrieved party in the case.