While at the Vatican the trial of Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu and the other defendants is approaching its fifth hearing without ever really getting started, the third and final volume of Cardinal George Pell’s “Prison Journal” has been published in the United States, which in some of its pages draws a profile of Becciu that is anything but uplifting.
In essence, Pell points to the one who was substitute secretary of state from 2011 to 2018 as the most tenacious opponent to the cleanup and reorganization of Vatican accounts that in 2014 Pope Francis entrusted to Pell himself, as prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy.
Below are the pages of the diary in which Pell refers to this resistance, which had its bastion in the Secretariat of State.
Pell does not discuss the trial that is now underway at the Vatican, which mainly concerns the botched purchase of a building in London by the Secretariat of State. He limits himself to noting that he had intuited from the beginning that the deal was wrong and should not have been done, and that he said as much, unfortunately going unheeded and instead being quickly deprived of his powers.
It is understandable, therefore, that in his diary Pell should cheer the fact that the swindle has gone to trial, thanks in part to the personal “insistence” of Pope Francis.
But in terms of this trial that came to its fourth hearing on November 17, while he was in prison writing his diary Pell certainly could not have known about its haywire judicial workings, or the blatant violation of the right to a defense, much less the possible developments that threaten to entangle and topple none other than Pope Francis himself.
Because this is precisely what sparked the hearing of November 17.
When Vatican tribunal president Giuseppe Pignatone opened the proceedings many matters were still unclear, as reconstructed point by point in this post that the Catholic News Agency published that same morning:
But then it happened that Luigi Panella, the attorney for one of the defendants, extracted from the copious deposition of the main accuser of Cardinal Becciu and the other defendants, the prelate Alberto Perlasca, the following statement from promoter of justice Alessandro Diddi, who was questioning him: “Monsignor, what you are saying is beside the point. We went to the Holy Father and asked him what happened, and I may have my doubts about everyone except for the Holy Father.” This submission of witness testimony from Pope Francis, however, prompted the attorney Panella’s objection that “we have no transcript,” which would prevent the trial from continuing.
After a suspension of the hearing, Diddi denied that the pope had been “examined under deposition” by the promoters of justice, because they were satisfied with what he had said during the November 26 2019 press conference “on the flight from Thailand to Japan” (in reality from Tokyo to Rome).
But it is well known that Francis not only had been kept informed of every step of the London deal, actually approving it, but personally intervened in at least one crucial moment of the affair, that of the negotiations of the Secretariat of State to take over the shares in the London building still in the possession of the broker Gianluigi Torzi, ultimately purchased for 15 million euros. And it was precisely this negotiation that Perlasca was talking about, under questioning by Diddi, at the point of his deposition recalled by the lawyer Panella.
It was the end of 2018, and Francis even had a photo taken with Torzi, whom he amiably received at Santa Marta on the feast of Saint Stephen. Responding afterward to the Associated Press, the Vatican tribunal confirmed that the pope had entered the room where the negotiations were being conducted, encouraging everyone to find a solution. Giuseppe Milanese, one of those present, said on the Italian state television program “Report” that Francis had even urged that Torzi be given his “just wages.” The pope’s intervention was also confirmed by Edgar Peña Paura, Becciu’s successor as substitute secretary of state, in a memorandum on the whole affair of about twenty pages, with various attached documents.
Given the turn taken by the hearing, Vatican tribunal president Pignatone then acknowledged that the trial could not go on “if the defense does not have full prior discovery,” and granted a continuance until December 1.
We will see. But getting back to Cardinal Pell’s diaries, here is what he wrote there, before the trial began, in these three pages of his, each followed by our brief observations.
1. “A PROVOCATIVE AND REVEALING STATEMENT”
(Wednesday December 11 2019, pp. 33-35)
Today I received from Rome a provocative and revealing statement from Cardinal [Giovanni Angelo] Becciu. […] Cardinal Becciu is different from most other Vatican figures implicated in financial affairs, who take cover and stay quiet until the artillery fire dies down, and then resume their usual life. This cardinal often releases statements. On this occasion he wrote to Sandro Magister of “L’Espresso” […] that he had not taken into consideration “the contrary judgment of Cardinal Pell” on the London [property] purchase simply because he never even consulted him on the matter, “since it was not his responsibility to supervise the accounts of the Secretariat of State,” an authority the pope had never given him.
The Italian expression used is “controllare i conti della Segreteria di Stato.” Although I do not have access to an Italian dictionary, the statutes of our Secretariat [for the economy] explicitly gave us the authority “to supervise,” controllare, all accounts in the Vatican, including those of the Secretariat of State; our approval was also needed for the purchase of property etc. above 500 thousand euros. This approval was not asked of us, but what provoked our opposition was the incorrect accounting management of the operation, in which the expenditure was masked and counterbalanced by the (theoretical) value of the purchase, against the rules of accounting. Our point of view did not prevail, but three things are clear:
1. In the statutes, the Secretariat of State has never been exempted from the supervision of the Secretariat for the Economy;
2. Our activities were opposed regularly, but not totally and effectively, by some, but not all, in the Secretariat of State. In this there were elements that were against having any outsiders look at their activities (and now we understand better why this was so);
3. The deputy secretary of state canceled the external audit and forced the auditor to resign. He does not directly deny our opposition and says nothing about the enormous losses on the investment (15 percent for the Brexit devaluation and at least another 15 percent for the collapse of the London housing bubble, i.e. a loss of at least 60 million euros on the initial 200 million euro investment), nor with regard to the connected bad practices, such as excessive fees and commissions.
(s.m.) To be exact, this is the passage of Cardinal Becciu’s statement that Pell contests:
“There is no basis for the charge that I did not take into consideration Cardinal Pell’s contrary judgment on the operation of the purchase of the London building, for the simple reason that the then prefect of the SPE [Secretariat for the Economy] was never asked about it, since it was not his responsibility to supervise the accounts of the Secretariat of State. This would have required the pope’s authorization, something he was never granted.”
But in addition to refuting these claims, Cardinal Pell points to Becciu as the most unyielding opponent of any supervision by the Secretariat for the Economy – established in 2014 by Pope Francis and headed by Pell himself – of the accounts of the Secretariat of State. The purchase of the London building was one of the matters of contention, but not the only one.
In particular, Pell attributes to Becciu the expulsion of auditor general Libero Milone, which took place on June 19 2017, the background of which was revealed by Milone himself in an interview the following September 24 with the “Wall Street Journal,” “Reuters,” “Corriere della Sera,” and SkyTg24. This was followed on the same day by a controversial statement from the Holy See and an even more poisonous comment from Becciu, according to which Milone “was spying on the private lives of his superiors and staff, including me.”
All this was reported in detail by Settimo Cielo in the following post, including the support that Pope Francis gave to Becciu in ejecting Milone and closing ranks against Pell, already deprived of his powers even before he went back to Australia for the trial in which he was charged:
On another page of his prison diary, written on February 22 2020, Pell also points to Alberto Perlasca as “a fanatical opponent of any type of external audit of the Secretariat of State’s finances.” He recalls that during the years of the London swindle it was he who “led the financial operations in the Vatican Secretariat of State.” He notes that his office was raided. And he comments: “The story will become even more interesting if Msgr. Perlasca starts talking.”
Indeed. Perlasca soon became the main accuser of Becciu and the other defendants in the London swindle trial. The video recording of his deposition ran to one hundred and fifteen hours.
2. THE PRISON VISIT OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE IOR
(Monday December 16 2019, pp. 47-48)
The highlight of the day was the visit of Jean-Baptiste de Franssu, president of the IOR, referred to as the Vatican bank, who came from Brussels to visit me. […] His visit is a wonderful gesture of support, which I deeply appreciate. […] Jean-Baptiste and I have worked together for reform in our different areas. Although he has often been maligned, mistreated, and physically threatened on at least one occasion, he has been more effective at eliminating corruption in the bank than I was in the whole Vatican, even if neither of us was able to uncover all the truth about some great scandals of the past, the real facts of which will likely remain buried.
It was the IOR’s refusal to cooperate in providing another 150 million euros [to the Secretariat of State] for the disastrous Chelsea purchase in London that recently brought the case to the forefront. I was pleased to learn that it was the Holy Father himself who not only authorized the “raids” in the Secretariat of State and in the offices of the AIF [Financial Intelligence Authority] but also insisted that action be taken. Jean-Baptiste also agrees that there is “prima facie” evidence of misconduct in the AIF and that if AIF president René Brüelhart resigned it was because he had no alternative. The IOR has come under considerable pressure to cooperate, and one of its officials has been threatened and intimidated, even if he has not been invited to take a look in the drawer and find a revolver there, as happened in the good old days. […]
Jean-Baptiste consulted Pope Francis about his trip to visit me and was strongly supported. I hope he in turn continues to receive the official support his efforts deserve and the Vatican needs as it slowly pulls itself out of its financial woes, as if out of a chasm.
I was pleased to hear that a number of cardinals, not all of my line of thinking, now admit that what I was proposing years ago is happening and that my, or our, efforts for reform have laid the foundation for the recent discoveries.
Even more pleasing was the news that a decree has been issued requiring that the investments of the APSA [Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See] be consolidated and carried out in a coordinated manner, as […] we had been prevented from doing. The old guard of the APSA will oppose this fiercely, and it remains to be seen whether there will be the capacity and enough goodwill to succeed.
Since Jean-Baptiste is in contact with Cardinal [Philippe] Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, I asked him how his case is going and to send him my best wishes. It looks like the verdict of “not guilty” will be announced in the new year, although the saga has weighed heavily on Barbarin’s health. I pray to God that the verdict of “not guilty” on his handling of one particular case of pedophilia may be upheld. Jean-Baptiste promised to call Lyon on his return.
(s.m.) On this other page of his diary, Cardinal Pell recognizes in IOR president Jean-Baptiste de Franssu – who came to visit him in prison with the prior consent of the pope – one of the few to have teamed up with him in the effort to reform the Vatican’s finances. In particular, he gives him credit for denying the 150 million euros requested by the Secretariat of State to conclude the purchase of the London building.
Pell also applauds the resoluteness – in truth hardly respectful of the most elementary rights – with which Pope Francis ordered the raids of the offices of the Secretariat of State and the AIF that served as the prelude to the trial on the London swindle.
There also appears on this page of Pell’s diary a less than flattering judgment on the AIF and its president at the time, the Swiss financier René Brüelhart, who has also ended up among the defendants in the trial, as well as a very negative judgment on the “old guard” of the APSA, another bastion of resistance to his reform activity, happily, however – he points out – in the process of being dismantled.
As for Cardinal Barbarin, Pell’s prayer that he be recognized as “not guilty” was answered on January 30 2020, with a verdict of acquittal.
3. “THE RESULT OF HYPOCRITICAL INCOMPETENCE”
(Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22 2019, p. 62)
The only news [today] was the update on the Malta court case, in which the IOR complains it was defrauded by two groups, Future Investment Manager and Optimum Management, in a 30 million euro investment intended for the purchase of 84 percent of the Stock Exchange Building in Budapest. Optimum has counterattacked, although in 2015 Italian authorities had already identified it as a fraudulent investor, on one occasion using [Raffaele] Mincione’s Athena Global Fund.
Before I returned home [in 2017], the IOR authorities had negotiated a settlement of this dispute, which was ready for signature and execution, when this was blocked by the Vatican authorities. This decision was certainly wrong and was perhaps the result of hypocritical incompetence; but it is hard to shake off the suspicion that the forces of darkness were at work for their nefarious purposes. […]
It is incredible that, thirty years after the Banco Ambrosiano scandal in which [Roberto] Calvi was found dead under London’s Blackfriars Bridge and the Vatican had to fork out hundreds of millions of dollars, rogue figures who supervise certain sections of the Vatican have continued dealing with disreputable financial agents who have robbed them of more than 100 million euros (at least) in the last ten years. Corruption must also be stopped in the Secretariat of State, as has been done at the IOR and the APSA.
(s.m.) The case of Malta is mentioned here by Pell as another proof of the “hypocritical incompetence” of the Secretariat of State in the financial field, aggravated by its stubborn refusal to do the internal cleanup that has at least been started in other Vatican offices.
The fact is that the coup de grace for the Secretariat of State then came on December 28 2020 on the orders of Pope Francis, with the forced transfer to the APSA of all its assets, that is, a large part of that billion and 400 million euros that Cardinal Pell – during the few months in which, at the beginning of the pontificate, he was able to act with the pope’s full mandate to clean up – had found outside the official Vatican budgets.
Cardinal Pell’s diary ends in Holy Week of 2020, when his innocence was unanimously recognized by the Australian Supreme Court and his freedom was restored after 404 days in prison in Melbourne.
This is the post that Settimo Cielo published on December 7 2020, at the release of the first volume of the diary: