British judge unfreezes assets of key figure in Vatican financial scandal

The judge ruled that there is no 'reasonable cause' to believe that Gianluigi Torzi, who was arrested by the Vatican last year, has benefited from criminal conduct.

In this Jan. 31, 2021, file photo, people are reflected on a puddle as they walk in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A British judge on Tuesday (March 23) reversed a previous court decision that froze the assets of Gianluigi Torzi, who is accused of defrauding the Vatican of roughly $22 million, allegedly with the help of conspirators inside and outside the Vatican.

“I do not consider there is reasonable cause to believe that Mr. Torzi has benefited from criminal conduct,” wrote Judge Tony Baumgartner of Southwark Crown Court, criticizing the Vatican Promoter of Justice offices for court filings that the judge said were riddled with “non-disclosures and misrepresentations.”

RELATED: COVID-19 pandemic has Vatican bracing for $60 million deficit in 2021

The charges against Torzi revolve around the 2018 purchase of a property in central London, which cost the Vatican well over $400 million through a contrived series of payments and commissions to offshore bank accounts.

The deal tarnished the Vatican’s reputation, particularly because some have claimed that the purchase of the property was made with funds from Peter’s Pence, a repository of charitable donations by rank-and-file Catholics.

In 2014, the Vatican had invested $200 million in the property, then belonging to the Italian investor Raffaelle Mincione. In 2018, the Vatican sought to purchase the entire property with Torzi’s mediation, but Torzi held on to 1,000 shares that allowed him to have final say on the property’s management.

Torzi later asked the Vatican to pay more than $17 million for his 1,000 shares, citing his mediator’s role and the personal expenses he incurred. After paying the sum in two separate installments in 2019, the Vatican accused Torzi of blackmail and, in June 2020, held him for interrogation before releasing him 10 days later.

The British judge’s decision brings a new perspective to the complex financial scandal by asserting that the deal was nothing more than a commercial transaction. Baumgartner also emphasized that the transactions appear to have taken place with the assent of the Vatican’s most high-ranking prelates, including Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra, the Vatican’s equivalent of the deputy chief of staff, and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Pope Francis’ secretary of state.

The judge recognized that the Vatican’s request to freeze Torzi’s Vita Healthy Ltd. — the fund that received the Vatican’s $17 million payment — was not “brought in bad faith.” But he said the court could not countenance “a restraint application that is so badly faulted as this one,” using the legal term for the freeze on assets.

The judge also released documents that contain Torzi’s testimony that he and his family were threatened by Vatican employees, naming Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, of the Secretariat of State, and a financial manager, Enrico Crasso.

Torzi told the court that Fabrizio Tirabassi, another Secretariat employee, offered to provide him with a prostitute “as a gift in recognition of Mr. Torzi’s efforts.” Torzi also said that Tirabassi admitted to bribing Catholic prelates, including Cardinal Angelo Becciu, according to the document.

Francis removed Becciu from his position at the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints in September 2020 and stripped him of his cardinal rights but not his title.

Finally, the judge addressed the odd circumstances surrounding the Vatican’s financial watchdog agency, AIF, which first raised concerns about the payments to Torzi in March 2019. Despite the warnings from AIF, the payments were made a month later, casting doubt on the claims by Vatican prosecutors that anyone at the Secretariat was blackmailed.

Since the payments went through, “it may be that Archbishop Peña Parra and the Secretariat misled the AIF about the nature of the payments,” the judge wrote, adding that the implausibility of the circumstances caused him to “further question” the Vatican prosecutor’s claims.

With the knot of financial scandals, Francis faces an uphill battle in enacting a broader economic reform. Since becoming pope, Francis has already stripped the Vatican’s Secretariat of State of its financial assets, centralized the purchase of goods and services in the city-state and, most recently, reduced the salary of high-ranking cardinals and prelates working in the Vatican. (The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has reduced charitable donations and dried up tourism to the Vatican museums, leaving a daunting deficit of $60 million in the Vatican coffers.)

RELATED: Pope Francis reduces cardinal wages as Vatican finances struggle due to pandemic

On Saturday (March 20), Francis appointed General Saverio Capolupo, former head of the Italian financial police, to oversee a troubled Vatican-owned hospital in Rome, the Immaculate Dermatological Hospital, or IDI. Capolupo took the place of the ad-interim president, Giuseppe Pusceddu, who, according to sources with knowledge of the facility, “made grave mistakes” while managing IDI.

As if to emphasize the complexity of the Vatican’s financial web, Torzi’s name has also popped up in connection to IDI. According to reports by Catholic News Agency, a fund run by Mincione, the original owner of the London property, bought more than $11 million in shares of Sierra One SpV, an investment fund belonging to Torzi, through a business called Sunset Enterprise.

Sunset Enterprise is one of several companies currently under investigation by Italian authorities for an alleged fraud surrounding another Catholic hospital in Rome.

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