A Vatican criminal court on Saturday sentenced Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, once one of the Church’s most powerful Vatican officials, to five and a half years in prison for financial crimes, a high-profile case that has raised questions about the prevalence of wrongdoing and incompetence financial at the highest levels of the Church.
The conviction was a sharp fall from grace for an officer who had served years ago as Pope Francis’ chief of staff. For some, he cast a shadow over Francis’ pontificate, while for others he demonstrated his commitment to putting the Church’s financial situation in order.
But for many, the trial – which lasted years and involved many of the Church’s highest officials and actors, including Francis himself – raised as many questions about the Vatican judicial system, the competence of its officials and the pope’s governing style as did regarding the crime actually committed by Cardinal Becciu.
Francis changed Vatican law to allow Cardinal Becciu to be tried in a Vatican criminal court – the first cardinal ever to do so – rather than allowing him to be tried by a tribunal of his cardinal peers. Scholars have been quick to find historical precedents, but the most recent, according to some, dates back to the 16th century.
Prosecutors formally charged him months later.
The various charges in the case, which also involved nine other defendants, included fraud, embezzlement, abuse of office, money laundering and extortion, and mainly concerned a real estate deal in London in which the Vatican lost millions of euros.
Cardinal Becciu was convicted of embezzlement and fraud, and was acquitted of numerous other charges. In addition to the prison sentence, he was also banned from holding public office.
After the verdict was read, his lawyer, Fabio Viglione, said that his client maintained his innocence and would “certainly appeal.” The court’s written ruling is expected within a couple of months.
Cardinal Becciu will not go to prison before the appeal trial, the lawyer said.
One of the nine defendants was acquitted of all charges; the others were each convicted of some charges and acquitted of others.
The group included former Vatican employees, London financiers, financial advisors and even an intelligence expert who had been hired to help pay the ransom of a Colombian not kidnapped by jihadist militants in Mali, in case the Vatican did not make it public previously. The nun, kidnapped in 2017, was released in 2021.
The sentence was read by the president of the court, Giuseppe Pignatone, who had already recognized that the trial had been “certainly unusual” due to its complexity.
The case involved a London real estate deal worth 350 million euros, or about $382 million, managed by the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s highest administrative body. Vatican prosecutors said the deal had hemorrhaged church money by enriching intermediaries, to the detriment and deception of the Vatican. Cardinal Becciu was number 2 in the secretariat of state when he invested in a fund that purchased the London property. The agreement was finalized by his successor at the secretariat.
Cardinal Becciu has maintained his innocence since Francis suddenly fired him in September 2020 from his post as head of the Vatican’s saint-making department, revoking some of his cardinal privileges. Cardinal Becciu said then that the pope had fired him because of the corruption allegations.
“The trial will leave a shadow,” said Alberto Melloni, historian and Vatican expert. By allowing a cardinal to be tried by lay civilians, Francis has set a precedent that “brings great disgrace to the Church,” he said, adding that many cardinals still cannot understand the pope’s decision. The “harshness of the sentence will make it difficult for the pope to know what to do next,” he added.
At the beginning of his mandate, Pope Francis had favored Cardinal Becciu, making him a central figure in the Church’s internal battles over how to manage its finances. Francis’ efforts to make Vatican finances more transparent have led to poisonous disputes among top officials.
Francis’ actions in the months leading up to the trial have brought into focus his power as absolute monarch of one of the world’s smallest city-states. Francis appointed the judges who were hearing the case, as well as the prosecutors, and secretly changed four laws during the investigation to benefit his prosecutors, defense lawyers said.
“The pope accumulates in himself the legislative power, the judicial power and the executive power, and in addition the pope has changed the rules in this process,” a provision practically unheard of in democratic countries, said Giovanni Maria Vian, former director of L ‘Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.
John Allen, the editor of the Catholic news site Crux, said “it’s like a tale of two narratives.” Allies and supporters have described the trial as being about “Francis the great reformer, promoting a new culture of accountability and transparency in the Vatican,” he said, while “competing with that is the dictator-pope narrative, which is that this is about Francis exercising arbitrary and, in some ways, virtually unlimited authority, in a sort of ad hoc way that tramples not only tradition, but also, well, human rights, basically.
Some have raised doubts about the legitimacy of having a court made up only of Italian judges and prosecutors, given the international reach of the Roman Catholic Church.
And the trial has also opened a new debate on Francis’ pontificate. His supporters saw it as a sign of his willingness to make radical changes, even if doing so meant overturning years of tradition and overcoming the Vatican’s perceived culture of impunity to hold his close associates accountable. His detractors saw it as yet another sign of an autocratic style of government.
Throughout the case, defense lawyers argued loudly that the four laws Francis changed called into question the independence of the Vatican judicial system and whether defendants could get a fair trial.
In his rebuttal at last week’s hearing, Alessandro Diddi, the prosecutor, countered that such accusations were “at the level of international heresy.”
Over the course of 85 hearings, the trial also brought to light what Ernesto Galli della Loggia, historian and editorialist for Corriere della Sera, described as a “desolate panorama” of internal strife, scandals and inattention on the part of the Vatican, not to mention mention “fierce conflicts between the various institutions of the Vatican State”. In 2020, Pope Francis stripped the Secretariat of State of its financial powers.
Cardinal Becciu was found guilty of two counts of embezzlement for sending money to a charity run by his family in his diocese in Sardinia and for his involvement in the London affair, and of one charge of fraud for his role in hiring the intelligence expert to free the Malian nun. According to the prosecution, the money was instead diverted by the expert to purchase luxury goods. The court said the issue of the nun’s ransom “did not correspond to the truth.”
In the long run, Director Allen said, the trial will be remembered not for the convictions, but for the way it started a “big debate about Francis.”