Vatican corruption trial raises questions about city state’s legal system

VATICAN CITY — Lawyers for a once-powerful cardinal accused Vatican prosecutors of being “prisoner to their completely shattered theory” on Wednesday in the latest round of closing arguments of a trial that has raised fundamental questions about the rule of law in the city state.

Despite attempts to demonize Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the two-year trial hasn’t proved any of the prosecutors’ allegations of embezzlement, abuse of office or witness tampering against him, said attorneys Maria Concetta Marzo and Fabio Viglione.

“The cardinal is innocent,” they said in a statement. “Thanks to the hearings, we were able to ascertain that none of the accusations had any foundation and that prosecutors were prisoner to their completely shattered theory.”

Becciu is on trial along with nine others in a sprawling case that is focused on the Vatican’s 350 million-euro investment in a London property but also includes two other tangents. Prosecutors have accused the 10 of a host of financial crimes including fraud, corruption, embezzlement and abuse of office.

Becciu has denied wrongdoing, as have the other defendants. A verdict is expected in mid-December.

From the start, defense lawyers have asserted that the Vatican City State’s legal code has deprived their clients of basic rights afforded defendants in other modern countries.

Even Pope Francis’ role in the case — he modified the law four times in favor of prosecutors during the investigation — has been cited by defense lawyers as evidence that defendants can’t get a fair trial in an absolute monarchy where the pope wields supreme legislative, executive and judicial power.

While Francis strongly wanted the prosecution to go ahead as evidence of his financial reforms, the trial has instead undermined the Holy See’s reputation and exposed it to potential legal and financial peril abroad.

Luigi Panella, defending the Vatican’s longtime money manager Enrico Crasso, said in his closing argument earlier this month that the Vatican’s reputation internationally had been compromised by questions about whether suspects can get a fair trial and the independence of the Vatican’s judicial system.

He noted that the Holy See had previously successfully argued in foreign courts that the Vatican tribunal was best placed to judge legal controversies since it had a “constant and uninterrupted practice of an absolute non-interference or self-restraint of popes.”

“The repeated interventions by the current pope in this trial risk creating a dangerous precedent that could crack the substantial trust that the Vatican City State jurisdiction has enjoyed until now internationally,” Panella said.

Lawyers for other defendants have accused chief prosecutor Alessandro Diddi of mounting a “fantasy” of a conspiracy where none existed, while sparing the key architect of the London deal: the Vatican monsignor who orchestrated it and signed the contracts without proper authorization.

“He (Diddi) built a castle that is beautiful … but it’s a castle that is completely invented, a total fantasy,” said attorney Mario Zanchetti, representing broker Gianluigi Torzi, who is accused of trying to extort the Vatican for 15 million euros to cede control of the London property.

The trial has brought the Holy See into unprecedented legal challenges in foreign judicial systems. British courts have ruled repeatedly against the Vatican in related litigation brought by two of the defendants.

In one 2021 decision, Judge Tony Baumgartner of Southwark Crown Court found Vatican prosecutors made “appalling” misrepresentations about their investigation into Torzi. He ruled the Vatican didn’t have much of a case against Torzi because signed contracts gave him control of the building, and ordered his assets released.

In a more recent ruling, Judge David Foxton of Britain’s Commercial Court ruled in June that the Holy See couldn’t rely on the “pontifical secret” to shield high-level communications between top Vatican officials from discovery.

That ruling came in a lawsuit filed against the secretariat of state by London-based broker Raffaele Mincione over the reputational harm he says he has suffered as a result of the Vatican trial and the press coverage it has generated. Mincione handled the original Vatican investment into the London deal, which he says was completely above board.

The British court allowed the lawsuit to go forward, in a setback for Rome. But the Vatican sought to withhold WhatsApp messages, emails, notes and texts between the Vatican secretary of state and the Vatican chief of staff from discovery, arguing they dealt with “high level political matters” and were covered by “pontifical secret,” the violation of which was a “grave sin” that could result in excommunication.

Foxton, however, ordered the Vatican to comply with all disclosure rulings of the court without relying on “pontifical secret.” He also ordered the Holy See to pay Mincione’s legal fees.

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