The most senior Vatican official accused of financial crimes goes on trial on Tuesday in a closely scrutinised case centred on a £129 million ($177.8m) property deal in one of London’s smartest districts.
Angelo Becciu, 73, stands accused with nine other people of losing the Vatican tens of millions of dollars from dodgy deals, paying off middlemen, luxury goods and siphoning cash to family members.
Mr Becciu faces accusations including embezzlement and putting pressure on another senior churchman to change his evidence.
Pope Francis has made cleaning up the Vatican’s finances a priority of his papacy and he lifted the disgraced cardinal’s immunity from prosecution so he could be charged.
He also fired Mr Becciu from his last Vatican post in 2020 for alleged nepotism. Mr Becciu allegedly funnelled cash to his brother’s charity on the Italian island of Sardinia.
The former high-ranking churchman has maintained his innocence before the trial that will take place in a makeshift courtroom in the Vatican Museums because of Covid restrictions.
Two Italian investment brokers, who have denied wrongdoing, are also accused in connection with the deal at 60 Sloane Avenue, in the upmarket district of Chelsea in south-west London, that is said to have eventually cost the Vatican about £300m.
The Vatican secured a 45 per cent stake in the building that was purchased in 2012 for £129m, according to British documents. The Vatican later spent millions more to buy the building outright and claimed it was duped in complex deals by the two bankers.
Another senior Vatican official, Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, handled the deal but is believed to have become a key witness for the trial after coming under pressure from Mr Becciu to recant his evidence.
The Vatican suffered enormous losses on the property – initially intended as a car showroom for department store Harrods – that now has planning permission to be converted into flats. It is being touted for possible sale for about £200m, Bloomberg reported in April.
The church says it is opening itself up to scrutiny, and officials revealed last year that its assets were about £3.5 billion in 2019, the first time an amount was made public.
“I think this specific case in this process marks a turning point that can lead toward greater credibility regarding the Holy See’s financial affairs,” said Fr Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, the head of the Vatican’s economic department.
“The fact that this process is happening means that some internal controls worked: the accusations surfaced within the Vatican,” he told the official Vatican News website.
“We are coming from a culture of secrecy, but in economics we have learned that transparency protects us more than secrecy does.”
He said that the Vatican had improved its “selection of consultants” used to handle the church’s finances.
Hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday are expected to deal with preliminary matters and then the trial is expected to be adjourned until October, when two hearings a week will be held.