Cardinal sentenced to 5 1/2 years in Vatican’s financial ‘trial of the century’

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(ROME) — The Vatican city court on Saturday sentenced Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, once touted as a possible papal contender, to 5 1/2 years in prison for mismanaging a Vatican property portfolio which included a luxury flat in London.

Becciu, the former Substitute for General Affairs in the Vatican Secretariat of State, is the highest ranking Vatican official ever to face financial charges. He was convicted on two counts of embezzlement and one of aggravated fraud, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. He was acquitted of other counts of embezzlement, abuse of office and witness tampering.

The court also fined Becciu 8,000 euros and banned him from public office for life. Becciu’s defense lawyer, Fabio Viglione, said he and his client “respect the sentence” but will appeal.

Eight other defendants were convicted Saturday and one, Msgr. Mauro Carlino, the former personal secretary to Becciu, was acquitted. Prison sentences for the other defendants ranged from three years and 9 months to seven years and six months.

The defendants were ordered by the court to pay damages of over 200 million euros in total.

Many Vatican observers saw the trial as a test of whether Pope Francis’ attempts to reform and modernize Vatican management of its finances — after years of financial scandals — are really working. Appeals by the defendants could prolong the case which has roiled the Vatican for years.

Becciu, a former close adviser to Francis, and 9 fellow defendants went on trial in 2021 for charges of embezzlement and other financial crimes after an investigation into a 350-million euro investment made by the Vatican Secretariat of State — the office responsible for the political and diplomatic activity of the Holy See — in a London high-end property.

Prosecutors alleged brokers and Vatican officials fleeced the Holy See of tens of millions of euros in fees and commissions in connection with the investment, and then extorted the Vatican for 15 million euros ($16.5 million) to cede control of the property, the Associated Press reported.

There were also charges of embezzlement over the Italian Cardinal Becciu’s alleged donation of Vatican funds to a charity run by his brother and the mysterious payouts of around $600,000 for the liberation of a missionary nun kidnapped in Mali in 2017 by Islamic militants.

Becciu is the first cardinal to be tried in Vatican City’s criminal court by lay judges. Becciu retained his title but was stripped of his rights as a cardinal, including the right to participate in a papal conclave, after being incriminated in this case. Prosecutors had sought to sentence him to seven years and three months in prison.

The chief prosecutor, Alessandro Diddi, sought prison sentences from three to 13 years for each of the 10 defendants, as well as the confiscation of some 415 million euros ($460 million) in damages and restitution, the Associated Press reported.

The ten defendants denied any wrongdoing, and their attorneys requested full acquittals. It was expected that if found guilty, the defendants would appeal the verdict.

Defense attorneys have insisted that the Vatican City state’s legal code deprived their clients of basic rights afforded to defendants. Pope Francis changed Vatican laws during the investigation by issuing four decrees that gave greater powers to prosecutors, but the chief prosecutor argued that these decrees protect defendants.

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