Just when you think that the Vatican’s “trial of the century” against a cardinal and nine other defendants for various alleged financial crimes can’t get any more surreal, two developments pop out of the woodwork to prove you wrong.
A hearing Thursday produced both a previously unknown, and unauthorized, recording of a phone call with Pope Francis, as well as testimony from the prosecution’s star witness, who essentially blamed everyone in the system – both above him and below him, but not himself – for what went wrong.
Let’s begin with the phone call.
The recording apparently was made by a relative of Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, one of the defendants in the trial, who’s facing charges related to transfers of Vatican money to a Catholic charity in his native Sardinia and also his financial dealings with a self-described lay security consultant named Cecilia Marogna.
Although reporters and other members of the public were escorted out of the hearing room Thursday before the recording of the conversation was played, the news agency AdnKronos provided a transcript. It occurred in late July 2021, just three days before the trial opened and not long after the pope’s colon surgery, and the recording was apparently preserved on a cell phone belonging to one of Becciu’s nephews.
In the call, Becciu clearly wanted Pope Francis to acknowledge that he had authorized payments through Marogna to a British firm to secure the release of a Colombian nun who had been kidnapped by Islamic militants in Mali in 2017. The firm was paid roughly $350,000 for its expenses, and then $500,000 was paid in ransom.
The nun, Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez, was eventually released and met Pope Francis in the Vatican afterwards.
Asked if he remembered being briefed on the transactions, Francis appeared to confirm that he had been: “I remember that, vaguely, but I remember, yes, I had it [the information], yes.”
Becciu then says he can’t call the pope as a witness, but asks him for a written statement that he had authorized the expenses. Francis suggests that Becciu put something on paper and send it to him, promising to look it over.
Prosecutors in the Vatican trial introduced the recording after having obtained it from Italian financial police, who are conducting their own investigation of a charity in Sardinia linked to Becciu. Clearly the prosecution hoped it would put Becciu in a bad light for having taped the pontiff surreptitiously, though defense attorneys pounced on it to argue that it illustrates why the pope needs to be questioned to establish what he knew and what he approved.
From the beginning, defense lawyers have argued that the people charged in the trial didn’t do anything that wasn’t fully approved by their superiors – including the “substitute,” meaning the number two official in the Secretariate of State, at the beginning Becciu and now Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra; the Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin; and Pope Francis himself.
Prosecutors don’t dispute that authorization occurred, but insist it was granted under false pretenses because, they claim, the defendants misrepresented the nature of the transactions involved.
As for the star witness, we’re talking about Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, originally from the Diocese of Como in northern Italy, who for years headed an office within the Secretariat of State which administered funds reserved to the Secretariat, including the income of the annual “Peter’s Pence” collection to support the activities of the pope.
As the investigation of the London deal began, Perlasca seemed to loom as an obvious target for criminal charges, since he was involved at every stage of the transaction. Perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, Perlasca repositioned himself as a whistle-blower and volunteered to give damaging testimony on former colleagues and business associates who were also part of London negotiations.
On Thursday, Perlasca took the witness stand for the first time in the Vatican trial. (The fact that it took 37 hearings before even beginning the testimony of the prosecution’s star witness, by the way, speaks volumes about the glacial pace at which the process is unfolding.)
In effect, Perlasca suggested that responsibility for the London deal resides with pretty much everyone else involved, but not him.
At the level of detail, he said, decisions about the transaction were made by his lay assistant, Fabrizio Tirabassi, who’s a defendant in the trial. At the big-picture level, Perlasca said, the deal was authorized by Becciu and later by Peña Parra, and it wasn’t his place to question their decisions.
“We have a saying – when things aren’t said to you, it means you don’t need to know, so I never asked,” Perlasca told the court.
So, to sum up: More than a year into this prosecution, we now have the star defendant on tape with Pope Francis, who appears to acknowledge that he personally approved at least one set of transactions at issue in the trial – and, we have the star witness implying that basically everyone else in the situation bears responsibility for what went wrong, but not him.
It’s impossible to know right now what all this means for the fate of the prosecution, given that we haven’t even reached the defense stage of the trial. What it does seem to suggest, however, is staying tuned, since there may be yet more rabbits to emerge out of various ecclesiastical hats.