The Vatican has taken the unprecedented step of putting a sitting cardinal on trial to face financial corruption charges linked to investments in luxury London property that used Catholic charitable money.
The indictment of Giovanni Angelo Becciu, who until last year was the cardinal overseeing the body in charge of selecting Catholic saints, marks a dramatic acceleration of Pope Francis's drive to reform the finances of the Holy See after decades of controversies.
The Vatican said a trial would begin this month in what marks the first time in modern Catholic history that a cardinal has faced charges of financial crimes. Cardinal Becciu was one of the most powerful men inside the Holy See before Pope Francis forced him to resign from his senior clerical post last year, a process that left Becciu a cardinal in name only.
Also charged are four other current or former Vatican officials and five external consultants, including two London-based businessmen, Gianluigi Torzi and Raffaele Mincione, on various charges including fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and abuse of office.
The charges brought by the Vatican on Saturday, in an investigation in collaboration with Italy’s financial police, are connected to a series of complicated financial investments overseen by Cardinal Becciu including the purchase of a large building in the Chelsea district of London.
Pope Francis has taken a far stronger stance on stamping out financial corruption within the Vatican than his predecessors, and has enacted sweeping reforms to the way the Catholic Church manages its investments.
Before being appointed a cardinal in 2018, Cardinal Becciu was the second-in-command of the Vatican’s powerful internal bureaucracy, the Secretariat of State which managed the so-called Peter’s Pence charitable donations made by the faithful to the Catholic Church. Last year Pope Francis, stripped the Secretariat of its control of these funds.
After the announcement of the charges and the trial, Cardinal Becciu said he denied any wrongdoing and welcomed the chance to clear his name.
“I am the victim of a plot hatched against me and I have been waiting for a long time to know any accusations against me, to allow myself to promptly deny them and prove to the world my absolute innocence,” Cardinal Becciu said in a statement made through his lawyers.
The Vatican said it had made the charges after an internal investigation that began in July 2019 and has since involved working with Italy's financial police and the public prosecutor's office of Rome, as well as requests for assistance from other countries including the UK, Switzerland and Luxembourg.
The Vatican said these investigations had “brought to light a vast network of relationships with operators in the financial markets that have generated substantial losses for the Vatican finances, having also drawn on the resources intended for the personal charitable works of the Holy Father”.
Central to the case is the Vatican’s investment in a luxury London property development called 60 Sloane Avenue in Chelsea that was managed on its behalf by Athena Capital, a Luxembourg-based fund founded by Mincione.
This property was sold in 2018 by Mincione to the Vatican outright in a deal brokered by Mr Torzi, a business associate of Mincione. In that sale, the Vatican alleges Mr Torzi proceeded to extort money from the Holy See and the transaction caused huge losses for the Catholic Church.
Mr Torzi, an Italian businessman based in London who was arrested earlier this year in the UK on the request of the Vatican and Italian authorities, has denied any wrongdoing.
Mr Mincione, an Italian ex-banker who lives in the UK, has also denied any wrongdoing. Last year, he began legal proceedings against the Vatican in the English courts, seeking a ruling that he and his companies acted at all times properly and in good faith in their dealings with the Vatican. When contacted by the Financial Times, Mr Mincione and his legal representatives did not respond to a request to comment.
Pope Francis was admitted to a Rome hospital for scheduled surgery to treat symptomatic diverticular stenosis, the Vatican said on Sunday. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021