A view of St. Peter's Square from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Vatican police raid home, office of influential church official in investment inquiry

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Vatican police have raided the office and apartment of Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, a former top deputy in the Catholic Church’s powerful Secretariat of State, seizing documents and computers, according to a Vatican statement issued on Tuesday (Feb. 18).

The raid was ordered by Gian Piero Milano, the Vatican’s chief presecutor, and resulted from investigations into real estate investments by the Secretariat of State in England, the statement said.

The raid on Perlasca’s home and his office in the Vatican make him the sixth and highest ranking Vatican official to be implicated in the continuing scandal surrounding the Holy See’s finances.

Perlasca, 59, serves on the influential managing board of several key financial departments in the Secretariat, helping to oversee health care, pensions for Vatican employees, the operations of Catholic hospitals and the Ratzinger Foundation, which offers grants for theologians and is named for the emeritus pope.

In July of last year, Pope Francis appointed Perlasca as substitute chief prosecutor at the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the church’s highest court. 

While the statement admitted a “presumption of innocence” for Perlasca, it also stated that this latest development in the financial scandals involving the Vatican is tied to the “initial interrogations” of five officials who were suspended in October of last year.

At that time, the offices of the five Vatican officials — including one priest — were raided by Vatican police after charges presented by the Institute for Religious Works, or IOR, commonly known as the Vatican bank, and the office of the revisor general, which is responsible for investigating corruption.

Later news reports tied the event to investments made in 2014 by Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, then-substitute secretary for general affairs in the Vatican Secretariat of State, a job similar to that of chief of staff.

According to documents leaked to the Italian news magazine L’Espresso, Becciu’s plan was to upgrade 49 office spaces into luxury apartments in a London property at 60 Sloane Ave. In 2014, money from accounts owned by the Vatican Secretariat of State at a Swiss bank, estimated to be about $200 million, were transferred to Athena Capital Fund, an investment company based in Luxembourg.

Those funds were later used to purchase a 45% stake in a company belonging to Italian entrepreneur Raffaele Mincione, which owned the London estate.

In May 2018, Pope Francis appointed Becciu to head the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints and replaced him at the Secretariat with Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra. Parra promptly bought out Mincione’s stake in the real estate company for reasons that remain unclear, though Vatican observers have reported that the purchase was related to scarce earnings and high costs of the investments.

Parra apparently felt some urgency to buy out Mincione, as he turned to the Institute for Religious Works to obtain more than $166 million for the purchase. The IOR denied the loan and sent a report to Vatican police forces about the “suspicious request.”

That report was soon followed by the suspension of the five Vatican employees, who were banned from the Vatican City.

But the Secretariat of State eventually gained full control over the London property, according to news reports, using money derived from Peter’s Pence, a fund controlled by the Secretariat that comes from donations by the faithful around the world to sustain the pope’s charitable works and evangelization.

Italian entrepreneur Gianluigi Torzi, who is based in London, was appointed to manage the property in early December 2018. The deal was signed, with Parras’ blessing, by Perlasca.

During a book presentation on Tuesday in Rome, Becciu, Parra’s predecessor at the Secretariat, denied “the accusations that the Secretariat of State used the money destined for the poor.”

“We did not use that money,” he said. “Peter’s Pence was not affected; an investment was made on a building. It was a good and opportune occasion, which many people envy us for today.”

The cardinal added, however, that while the fund’s purpose “is to help the pope in the management of structures and in his charitable activity,” it is “common practice” for Peter’s Pence monies to be used for investments aimed at supporting Vatican departments.

Becciu, who said he is “not among the suspects” under investigation, expressed his faith in the Vatican judiciary to resolve the case surrounding the employees suspended in October, all of whom worked closely with Becciu.

“I have known them as honest people, dedicated to duty and faithful,” he said, adding that his former co-workers “are suffering so much.”

On his flight back from Japan in November, Pope Francis told Vatican reporters that money from Peter’s Pence could be used to invest in apartment buildings, “but with sureties, with all of the precautions, for the good of the people of the pence.”

Asked then about the London deal, Francis said it was a “scandal,” adding without further specification that the people involved “have done things that do not seem clean.”