Catholic ‘Gladiator School’ Aide Cleared of All Charges

The Italian court exonerated Benjamin Harnwell and affirmed that his procurement of a monastery for Steve Bannon’s proposed political academy was legal.

Benjamin Harnwell emerges March 7 from an Italian courtroom after the verdict in a case involving the Trisulti Charterhouse (r) near Collepardo, Italy.
Benjamin Harnwell emerges March 7 from an Italian courtroom after the verdict in a case involving the Trisulti Charterhouse (r) near Collepardo, Italy. (photo: Diane Montagna / SerFeo / Shutterstock)

ROME — The Criminal Court of Rome has cleared a British Catholic layman of all charges concerning the acquisition of an 800-year-old monastery earmarked for use as a “gladiator school” for future politicians, to be headed by President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

After a four-year legal battle against the Italian state, a judge ruled that Benjamin Harnwell and his Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a political think-tank based in Rome, had in 2018 properly obtained a 19-year lease on the Abbey of Trisulti, a historic 13th-century former Carthusian charterhouse south of the Italian capital.

It followed a protracted legal dispute with Italy’s Ministry of Culture, which had evicted Harnwell from the abbey in 2021, claiming that €200,000 (nearly $220,000) in rent had not been paid and that Harnwell had obtained the lease fraudulently. 

However, the judge at Rome’s criminal court ruled that Harnwell had legally obtained the lease and made all the required payments, supporting four previous rulings handed down by a regional court. 

“Steve Bannon’s academy for the Judeo-Christian West — ‘the gladiator school’ — will be going ahead and lives to fight another day,” a jubilant Harnwell told reporters after today’s verdict. 

With funding from Bannon and other politically aligned donors, Harnwell had intended to turn the former monastery, which in its later years had been home to Cistercian friars until they ran out of vocations, into a “gladiator school” for politicians wanting to defend the West’s Judeo-Christian values. 

The academy’s courses were to initially take place online with lectures beginning at the abbey in the spring of 2021.

But the project almost immediately ran into opposition from political forces that oppose to Bannon’s populist and nationalist politics, the academy’s reassertion of Judeo-Christian values, and Bannon’s links with Trump. 

Harnwell, a past contributor to the Register who also served as chief of staff to Nirj Deva, a Conservative Member of the European Parliament in the late 2000s, told the Register March 7 that the entire legal case against him had been “politically driven” and that it was “only ever about Steve Bannon and his closeness to Donald Trump.” 

“Anybody who has followed this case from the beginning, and followed it closely, knows that no crime had been committed, and I hadn’t committed any crime,” said Harnwell. “The Ministry for Culture never sued me at any point for the things it claimed publicly, and to this day I have never been convicted for any crime in this country or elsewhere.”

Culture Minister Under Scrutiny

“How [former Culture Minister Dario] Franceschini got me out of that monastery without me ever having been convicted of any crime is a question that now needs to be asked,” he said. 

Harnwell also blamed more generally “the political left in Italy,” which, along with a “compliant media,” had “absolutely poisoned my name and reputation with allegations which they knew weren’t true even at the time they were making them.”

The former political adviser, who has personally had to pay hundreds of thousands of euros in legal fees and costs to defend his name, added: “When the substance of these accusations was weighed side by side with our defense against them, it was absolutely clear they were nonsense.”

Speaking in 2020 after the regional court threw out attempts by Italy’s culture ministry to halt the project, Bannon said, “We knew we had the law on our side,” and that it “would have been easy to give up the project, to carry it out elsewhere, not to face huge legal costs, but I believe in the Italian people and in the symbolic importance of Rome.”

Today’s verdict was originally due in December but had to be postponed after the state prosecutor turned up without adequate preparation. The state prosecutor’s star witness also failed to appear at any of the prior hearings.

Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist & senior counselor on Nov. 13, 2016.

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