Unappealing prospects after the Vatican trial verdict


Notices of appeal are flowing in after guilty verdicts were read in Vatican City court Saturday, with which nine of the 10 defendants were convicted of crimes linked to the Secretariat of State’s financial scandal.

But with marquee defendants all insisting on their innocence, and vowing to clear their names, how far are they likely to get — and in which court?

And what does it all say about the state of Vatican City’s legal system?

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, Pope Franics, Raffaele Mincione

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Nearly all nine convicted defendants have already announced their intentions to appeal in Vatican City. 

Assessing their likelihood of success is something of a speculative game, owing to the basic court procedures of the Vatican City tribunal. 

On Saturday, Dec. 16, the judges delivered their verdicts just days after the trial’s final hearing. While they did release findings of guilty and not guilty on the various charges, as well as the sentences assigned to each defendant, they did not release the reasoning behind each decision.

A much more lengthy judicial report is expected from the bench in the New Year, which will give the judges’ detailed assessments of the evidence and the basis for their conclusions. 

As a result, the defendants had a small window to file what was effectively a notice of intent to appeal — rather than an appeal itself — since the basis for any specific appeal will have to argue against the fuller finding, which is yet to be released. 

To many court watchers, this seems like an unwieldy and unnecessarily complicated way of doing things. But it seems clear that the trial’s judges were adamant that they wanted the trial finished and their verdicts delivered before the close of 2023, and this approach was what made that possible. 

The verdict delays might strike some international observers as evidence of a basic level of dysfunction in the Vatican City court system, but the reality is that the same methodology is not unknown in the Italian legal system, upon which the Vatican City criminal code is substantially based. 

But even so, it can be noted that the strength of evidence presented against some of the now convicted financial criminals doesn’t seem to offer them much hope on appeal.

The trial’s star defendant-turned-convict, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, for example, has branded the decision against him, and his five and a half year jail sentence as “absurd.” But, as a Vatican cardinal, he more than any other defendant may find it difficult to avoid the full force of the verdict against him when his appeal process concludes. 

It remains an open question how long that could take, though the best previous example available suggests the process could take about 18 months, and not leave Becciu with much ground for optimism. 

In January 2021, the same Vatican City court convicted the former head of the IOR, the Vatican bank whose new management triggered the investigation which led to Becciu’s conviction last week.

Angelo Caloia, his personal lawyer, and his son, were all convicted of having used Caloia’s position to sell parts of the IOR’s property portfolio to themselves at reduced prices, masking the transactions through a series of offshore holding companies.

The court, led by the same judge in Becciu’s case, handed Caloia a sentence of 8 years and 11 months. He was 81 years old at the time. 

In July 2022, shortly after the charges against Becciu were announced, the court of appeal in Vatican City upheld Caloia’s conviction in full.

Cardinal Becciu has branded his conviction “absurd,” and embarked on a tour of Italian media to reiterate his criticisms of the prosecution, along with his insistence that he is the victim of both mistakes made by his former underlings and a vicious tabloid press.

Becciu’s claims have received a largely uncritical hearing from media outlets who did little actual reporting on the substance of the case against the cardinal, and which followed only the broadest strokes of the trial. 

But for those more immersed in the details of the case, and the evidence against the cardinal, the decision against him was far from a bolt from the blue. 

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The case opened with documentary proof — accepted by Becciu — that he’d sent more than a million euros of Church money to members of his own family and to Cecilia Marogna, his self-described private spy. 

His attempts to insist that the payments into his brother’s bank account were for charity unraveled fairly quickly, when Italian police discovered a long paper trail of apparently forged documents to account for the cash. 

Similarly, Becciu’s repeated insistence that his payments to Marogna were part of an ultra-secret mission to free a kidnapped nun, backed and blessed by Pope Francis personally, fell apart when the pope repeatedly, in writing and on the phone, denied any such knowledge or permission. In fact, all Becciu succeeded in proving was his habit of secretly recording his calls with the pope, itself a crime against state secrecy for a Vatican official.

Other defendants are similarly likely to face a high evidentiary bar to clear at appeal, however loudly they denounce the Vatican’s legal system.

Fabrizio Tirabassi, to take another example, has also taken to the Italian press to blast the court ruling against him. The lay former official at the Secretariat of State was found guilty of abuse of office and corruption and sentenced to seven years in prison. 

But while he might claim to have been made a scapegoat, he conceded in court that he had lucrative side deals with Swiss banks, which netted him millions for steering Vatican business their way.

Similarly, the investment manager and advisor Enrico Crasso may choose to appeal his seven year jail sentence. But given the strength of proof that he, among other crimes, pitched the Secretariat of State on a nakedly fraudulent investment deal for a non-existent American highway, it’s unlikely a court of appeal will see much to dispute about the original verdict.

Not all of the defendants are facing such steep odds, or even relying on the Vatican City judiciary to vindicate them. 

Raffaele Mincione is the investment manager who created the Athena Global Opportunities Fund to invest some $200 million for the Secretariat of State in 2014 and who eventually sold them the London building in a business deal which kicked off the investigation and trial.

He, unlike many of his co-defendants, has argued from the beginning that the evidence is on his side. 

In a lengthy interview with The Pillar earlier this year, Mincione laid out his narrative for how he came to be in business with the Vatican — first being asked to manage a predetermined project in Angola, before his company persuaded the secretariat it was a losing venture, and then asked to come up with an alternative proposal which became the Athena fund.

Mincione was unsparing in his assessment of the people the Secretariat of State sent to do business with him and, for his part, clear he had abided by every agreement he’d made and contract he signed. And he was willing to produce the paperwork to back his claims up, both to the judges and to The Pillar

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The court, as it happens, broadly agreed with him and his version of events. Originally charged with embezzlement, fraud, abuse of office, and self-laundering, he was acquitted on nearly all of the charges.

In the words of Mincione’s legal team: 

“While the Vatican tribunal acknowledged that Mincione was not guilty of fraud against the Secretariat of State of the Holy See and has not corrupted any Vatican Officials, it found him in violation of the provisions on the administration of ecclesiastical goods (in particular of canon 1284 of the Vatican canonical code) on the basis that the Athena Fund had allegedly agreed to take under management USD 200 million from the banks Credit Suisse and BSI, which – as Mincione was only made aware of today – could apparently not be earmarked for this purpose according to such cannon 1284.”

Mincione was essentially found guilty of investing money which, under Vatican law, was not supposed to be available for investing, and he was supposed to know that.

The money in question, borrowed from the two Swiss banks and disguised on secretariat legers using prohibited accounting measures, was the source of the initial bloody conflict between Becciu’s old department and the Vatican’s then-financial chiefs, Cardinal George Pell and Libero Milone back before their ousting in 2017.

There seems little question, and has since 2019, that these investments broke Vatican City laws. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that Mincione would have been able to know that, or even that the burden was on him to be sure the most senior officials in the Vatican’s own state department were in compliance with their own laws.

Mincone has also long argued that if he was supposed to know where the Vatican’s money was coming from, and verify it was available for investment purposes, the same burden should fall on the bank which brokered the whole project, Credit Suisse. 

But, as Mincione has pointed out, the bank was not cited in the case, either as a defendant or for witness testimony. Mincione argues that this is because the Vatican prosecutors shied away from taking a global investment bank to court, but were much more comfortable prosecuting him with a view to recouping money the Secretariat of State lost in the deal.

How much luck Mincione may have in convincing a Vatican appeal court of this is an open question. Perhaps the more pressing question, though, is how likely he is to convince another court of the same arguments.

Before charges were even filed against him in Vatican City, Mincione sued the Secretariat of State in the UK, asking for judgment that he had dealt plainly and fairly with them. So far, he’s had the running in the preliminary stages of that case, after winning an appeal against a decision to delay proceedings until after the Vatican process had played out.

He’s also filed suit on the specific issue for which he was convicted on Saturday — whose responsibility it was to ensure the Vatican state department was investing its cash legally, according to their own laws.

In a lawsuit filed in June last year, Mincione’s company claimed that Credit Suisse and Citco, a private banking and investment firm headquartered in the British Virgin Islands used by the Secretariat of State, “failed to divulge crucial information about the origin of the money.”

The UK cases are key for Mincione, and for the Vatican. 

On Saturday, Mincione was given a sentence of five years. While Mincione is unlikely to present himself in Vatican City to go to prison, millions of euros of his assets, many of them frozen in Switzerland, are liable for the court to seize in damages. 

But even if Swiss authorities honor the Vatican judgment, and the signs so far are that they will at the end of the appeals process, it doesn’t mean he has no avenue of redress. 

The High Court of England and Wales is well used to handling complex financial cases, more so than the Vatican City tribunal, and may come to a different conclusion in the case. If they do, the English court could well award Mincione damages against the Vatican. 

While the London building at the center of the Vatican trial is now long sold, at a substantial loss, the Holy See has other valuable assets and investments in the UK as part of its global portfolio. All these would be on the line in a judgment that goes Mincione’s way in London, and it could render his conviction in Vatican City a pyrrhic victory, and a costly result.

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Where does all of this leave the credibility of Vatican City’s legal system? 

For some, the sweeping slate of convictions is a vindication of the prosecution’s often controversial tactics and proof that financial reforms brought in under Pope Francis have real teeth. 

Others, including many prominent voices in Catholic and Italian media, long sympathetic to Cardinal Becciu, see it as evidence that the Vatican is running a kangaroo court, with no separation of powers and working to the pope’s wishes and ends, stated or implied.

But there seems to be little actual substance to those claims, beyond a general criticism that Vatican City is an absolute monarchy, not a liberal democracy. 

As absolute monarch, Pope Francis can’t be the subject of, or even witness in, a criminal trial, since his own opinions and assessments could essentially be construed as legal judgements by the city state’s supreme judge. 

As such, Francis has remained away from the actual legal mechanics of the trial, even if he has — arguably unhelpfully — insisted on remaining “pastorally close” to Cardinal Becciu, even while he’s been simultaneously accused of denying the cardinal due process, though there’s arguably little, if any, grounds for that assertion, either.

While providing the necessary legal authorization for the initial investigation into his own prime minister’s office to begin, Francis’ only substantive legal action on the case was to change Vatican law in early 2021, making it possible for cardinals to be tried in open court, instead of before an all-clerical panel from the Holy See’s supreme canonical tribunal. But that happened prior to charges being filed against Becciu and the other defendants.

Since the case began, Francis’ only actions have been to make documents available to the court when necessary as evidence — including declassifying state documents, waiving executive privilege for those on trial, and offering his own personal correspondence when necessary.

In short, far from wading into the trial, the pope limited himself to clearing as much of a path as he could to allow it to proceed without putting himself in the middle of it.

The result of the case, too, hardly speaks of a papally ordered result. Near-wholesale convictions of senior figures appointed by Francis himself, including his former chief of staff and the leadership of his own financial watchdog, hardly reflects glowingly on Francis as a governing  executive or judge of character.

In the case of Mincione, and the potential financial liability the Vatican faces in foreign courts, the Vatican City judges decision actually prolongs the Secretary of State’s involvement in an affair the department is clearly desperate to turn the page on. 

And, in the event of a contrary decision in London, the Vatican court may find respected foreign judges pour scorn on its work, and cost the Holy See more millions, when acquitting Mincione could have spared it both.

While we all have to wait for the full judicial rationale to be published next year, whatever motivated the Vatican judges’ rulings, it’s unlikely to have been zeal to do what the pope wanted, and there’s little evidence to suggest Francis got it, either.

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