Analysis: Vatican ‘Trial of the Century’ Prepares for Hearing of ‘Super-Witness’

The most recent hearings shed light on how investigations were undertaken: The Vatican trial is based on documents, and the declarations of the witnesses during the investigation are already part of the proceedings.

(photo: Vatican Media / VM)

VATICAN CITY — A key witness in the so-called Vatican finance “trial of the century” will be heard at the end of November.

His role — and testimony — is considered so vital to the corruption trial that some are calling him a ”super-witness.”

Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, for 11 years a senior official in the Vatican Secretariat of State, will testify at the Vatican tribunal on Nov. 23, 24, and 25 in what is expected to be a crucial moment of the trial.

Primarily, the trial revolves around the Secretariat of State’s investment in luxury real estate in London.

However, it also explores further criminal allegations.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, for instance, also faces charges for allocating money from the Secretariat of State to Caritas in his native region.

Investigations were carried out in June 2021 on the island of Sardinia. The searches took place at the offices of Spes Cooperative, a limited liability corporation owned and legally represented by Cardinal Becciu’s brother Antonino as well as at the Diocese of Ozieri and its diocesan charity, Caritas.

Ozieri is the former diocese of Cardinal Becciu, who is from Sardinia.

The cardinal furthermore is called to answer for the engagement of Cecilia Marogna as a consultant to the Secretariat of State.

The most recent hearings shed light on how investigations were undertaken: The Vatican trial is based on documents, and the declarations of the witnesses during the investigation are already part of the proceedings.

For this reason, Giuseppe Pignatone, president of the state court of Vatican City, ruled that from now on, witnesses will be questioned only on matters not covered by written statements already documented. This reflects the documentary processes in force in the Vatican.

With this in mind — where is the trial at?

The Sardinian Connection

Gianluigi Antonucci is the Vatican policeman who participated in the searches in the Diocese of Ozieri in connection with a Vatican investigation into accusations of embezzlement by Cardinal Becciu.

Antonucci said that the contributions of the Secretariat of State to the Spes Cooperative, led by Antonino Becciu, the cardinal’s brother, came “from an account of the Secretariat of State” with 44 subaccounts and “significant figures destined for Peter’s Pence.”

The detail about Peter’s Pence is important.

The question of whether this could also be a case of “mistaken identity” has been raised previously. The Secretariat of State has had an account since 1939 called the “Conto Obolo” (Obolo is the Italian word for “pence”).

Among the transfers were also 100,000 euros from the Secretariat of State to the Sardinian Spes Cooperative, of which Becciu had also requested an annual report on social initiatives.

There were no reports, though, apparently because the money had not yet been spent.

The funds were earmarked for the renovation of a bakery run by the cooperative, acquired in 2004 and renovated after a fire in 2015. A further 25,000 euros was intended for purchasing machinery in the bakery, which cost 98,000 euros.

The funds ended up in the account used by Caritas and Spes Cooperative, defined by the gendarmes as a “mixed account.” According to the Vatican police, it is impossible to assess whether the 100,000 euros in the account are the money coming from the Secretariat of State or the result of other operations.

It is striking that neither the apostolic administrator of Ozieri, Bishop Sebastiano Sanguinetti, nor Bishop Corrado Melis, who were in office during the events, were interviewed by the Vatican police.

The Vatican police said they tried to reach out to the bishop, but he was not available. When asked why the bishop was not summoned, Antonucci replied that “it was not his decision how to conduct the investigation.”

Antonucci did not “dismiss” that some expenses for clothing, meals, and fuel were destined for migrants or refugees assisted by Caritas of Ozieri, but he said that it was “strange that certain expenses concerned migrants.”

He also suggested that he did not understand the destination of the 3,000 euros withdrawn from the account but that he could not exclude that they were intended for small donations.

The question is: How can the allegations hold up in court if they are seemingly only based on possibilities?

How the Investigations Took Place

In the hearing on Oct. 19, Luca De Leo, IT technician of the Gendarmerie Security Center, underlined that 243 devices had been acquired, analyzed, and transferred. Of these, 37 are the devices the Promoter of Justice used for the investigation, including nine mobile phones and 17 computers.

Among the documents analyzed is the so-called “3% letter.” It is a letter from the Secretariat of State, dated April 17, 2019, guaranteeing the broker Gianluigi Torzi 3% of the value of the London property.

According to the indictment order, this letter existed on a virtual level. The witness said that a physical copy was never found and that the document, prepared in November 2018, was printed in April 2019. However, it is impossible to assess any changes to the text. The source file says there were updates made, but not what the changes were.

Did this businessman personally profit?

In several instances, it seems, the Vatican police made investigative deductions without then fully following up on them. The trial will determine whether they were correct or not.

The investigation also tried to assess whether Fabrizio Tirabassi, a former official of the Secretariat of State, used his position for personal profit from Vatican investments.

Domenico De Salvo, deputy inspector of the Vatican police, detailed about 20 stays in Switzerland — sometimes only for one night — paid for by the company Sogenel Capital Holding by Enrico Crasso, another defendant in the trial who also was at one time an investor of funds for the Secretariat of State.

In a spontaneous statement, Tirabassi said his trips were a right of his office, and all had been authorized or at least communicated to his direct superior, Monsignor Perlasca. However, there was no official authorization procedure, and Perlasca appears to have verbally authorized these trips.

Angelo Martone is an auxiliary of the judicial police who dealt with the analysis of bank accounts and other financial activities of Crasso when it came to the investments of the Secretariat of State.

Crasso’s lawyer asked the analyst if it was ever considered in the investigation that these investments still yielded several million euros in capital gains. Martone said it was not.

Another witness, Luca Bassetti of the Vatican judicial police section, investigated the case of Cecilia Marogna. He found that nine transactions of money were made from the Secretariat of State to the Slovenian company owned by Cecilia Marogna as well as to the British Inkerman Group.

The given reason for the financial transaction was “voluntary contribution for humanitarian missions.”

The policeman also said Becciu was still involved in these transactions in the year 2018, when he was no longer officially in charge, according to Monsignor Perlasca.

This may seem less surprising when taking into account that few were aware of these operations. Cardinal Becciu took care of these personally, and his successor, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, needed clarification on operations he was unaware of. Such back and forth is part of hand overs, too.

The Financial Intelligence Authority also reported a suspicious transaction of cash payment on Sept. 4, 2018, consisting of eight 500 euro banknotes.

The Next Steps

Without prejudice to the fact that much will be understood from the testimony of Monsignor Perlasca, the president of the court scheduled the interrogation of Giuliano Capaldo, a consultant to the Secretariat of State and previous collaborator of Gianluigi Torzi.

Capaldo was expected to testify on Oct. 11. However, he did not show up, instead asking to be heard in London, in the office of the nunciature. President Pignatone rejected the request.

Another crucial witness will be Gian Franco Mammì, director general of the IOR, whose report sparked the case.

Mammì will likely be heard as a witness in December. Among other things, he will have to explain why the IOR responded positively to a loan request from the Secretariat of State and changed its mind a few days later.