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 raised questions about the prevalence of financial malfeasance and incompetence at the highest levels of the church.
The conviction was a steep fall from grace for an official who had served years ago as Pope Francis’ chief of staff. For some, it cast a shadow over Francis’ pontificate, while for others, it showed his commitment to getting the church’s financial house in order.
But for many, the trial — which lasted years and brushed up against many of the church’s top officials and players, including Francis himself — raised as many questions about the Vatican’s judicial system, the competence of its officials and the pope’s style of governance as it did about what crime Cardinal Becciu actually committed.
Francis changed Vatican law to allow Cardinal Becciu to stand trial in a Vatican criminal court — the first cardinal ever to do so — rather than allowing him to be tried by a court of his cardinal peers. Scholars scrambled to find historical precedents, but the most recent, by some accounts, was in the 16th century.
Prosecutors formally indicted 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 mostly centered on a London real estate deal in which the Vatican lost millions of euros.
Cardinal Becciu was convicted of embezzlement and fraud, and was acquitted of several 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 his client stood by his innocence and would “certainly appeal.” The written court ruling is expected within a couple of months.
Cardinal Becciu would not go to jail before the appeal trial was heard, the lawyer said.
One of the nine defendants was acquitted on all charges; the others were each convicted on some counts, and acquitted on others.
The group included former Vatican employees, London-based financiers, financial consultants and even an intelligence expert who had been hired to help pay the ransom of a Colombian nun kidnapped by jihadist militants in Mali, a case that the Vatican had not previously made public. The nun, who was kidnapped in 2017, was released in 2021.
The sentence was read by the presiding judge, Giuseppe Pignatone, who had acknowledged earlier in the day that the trial had been “certainly unusual” because of its complexity.
The case centered on a €350 million, or about $382 million, London real estate deal handled by the secretariat of state, the Vatican’s top administrative body. Vatican prosecutors said the deal had hemorrhaged church money while enriching middlemen, to the Vatican’s detriment and deceit. Cardinal Becciu had been No. 2 at the secretariat of state when it invested in a fund that bought into the London property. The deal was finalized by his successor at the secretariat.
Cardinal Becciu has said he was innocent since Francis abruptly dismissed him in September 2020 from his post as the head of the Vatican’s saint-making department, revoking some of his privileges as a cardinal. Cardinal Becciu said at the time that the pope had dismissed him because of allegations of corruption.
“The trial will leave a shadow,” said Alberto Melloni, a historian and Vatican expert. By allowing a cardinal to be tried by lay civilians, Francis created a precedent that “cast very strong dishonor on the church,” he said, adding that many cardinals still failed to 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.
Early in his tenure, Pope Francis had favored Cardinal Becciu, making him a central character in the church’s internecine battles over how to manage its finances. Francis’ efforts to make the Vatican’s finances more transparent led to poisonous disputes among top officials.
Francis’ actions in the months that preceded the trial brought into focus his power as the absolute monarch of one of the world’s smallest city-states. Francis appointed the judges who were trying the case, as well as the prosecutors, and secretly changed four laws during the investigation to benefit his prosecutors, defense lawyers claimed.
“The pope accumulates in himself legislative power, judicial power and executive power, and what’s more, the pope changed the rules in this trial,” a provision that is practically unheard-of in democratic countries, said Giovanni Maria Vian, a former editor 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 been depicting 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 kind of ad hoc way that rides roughshod over not only tradition, but also, well, human rights, basically.”
Questions were raised by some about the legitimacy of having a court comprising only Italian judges and prosecutors given the international scope of the Roman Catholic Church.
And the trial also started a new debate about Francis’ papacy. His supporters saw it as a sign of his will to carry out radical changes, even if doing so meant overthrowing years of tradition and overcoming the Vatican’s perceived culture of impunity to hold close collaborators accountable. His detractors saw it as yet another sign of an autocratic style of government.
Throughout the case, defense lawyers vocally argued that the four laws changed by Francis called into question the independence of the Vatican’s judicial system and whether defendants could get a fair trial.
In his rebuttal during a hearing last week, Alessandro Diddi, the prosecutor, countered that such accusations were “on the level of international heresy.”
Over the course of 85 hearings, the trial also brought to light what Ernesto Galli della Loggia, a historian and columnist for the Corriere della Sera, a Milan newspaper, described as a “desolate panorama” of Vatican infighting, scandals and carelessness, not to mention “fierce contrasts between the different institutions of the Vatican state.” In 2020, Pope Francis stripped the secretariat of state of its financial powers.
Cardinal Becciu was found guilty on 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 deal, and on one count of fraud for his role in hiring the intelligence expert to free the nun in Mali. Prosecutors said the money had instead been diverted by the expert to purchase luxury goods. The court said the question of the nun’s ransom “did not correspond to the truth.”
In the long run, said Mr. Allen, the editor, the trial would be remembered not for the convictions, but for the way it started a “great debate about Francis.”