VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A dull silence filled the room when Cardinal Angelo Becciu, shoulders hunched and eyebrows furrowed, walked in for the first day of a historic Vatican trial, in which he is one of 10 facing a wide range of charges for their part in a real estate deal using Catholic Church funds.
Becciu is the lone cardinal — likely in history — to be brought to trial by the Holy See, in this case charged with bribery and embezzlement. Speaking to reporters at the end of the day’s session, he framed his appearance in the courtroom as a personal obligation.
Pope Francis “wanted me to come to the trial and I’m coming to the trial,” Becciu said.
“I am serene, and my conscience is clear,” Becciu added, placing his hope in the Vatican judges to “recognize my innocence.”
Becciu was serving as “sustituto” at the secretariat of state, an office equivalent to papal chief of staff, when reports of financial mismanagement of the Vatican’s 2013 investment in a luxury apartment complex in London began to circulate in Rome. In December, the pope stripped him of his rights and positions in the church, leaving him only with his title, citing other alleged financial improprieties involving a donation to his brother’s charity.
The cardinal also announced that his lawyers plan to press libel charges against Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, who oversaw financial affairs at the secretariat of state, and against Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, who was found guilty by a Vatican court in 2016 of leaking confidential documents about Vatican finances.
Though not charged in the case, Perlasca was interrogated by Vatican prosecutors on several occasions. Chaouqui has publicly criticized Becciu in interviews with Italian media outlets. According to the cardinal, both individuals were the source of “serious untruths” about him that were included in the trial papers.
Vatican prosecutors said during the trial that during the investigations, Perlasca chose to come forward as a witness and testified on several occasions without the presence of his legal counsel.
For much of the day’s proceedings, however, it wasn’t Becciu or any of his co-defendants who seemed to be on trial. Rather, defense attorneys did their best to portray the Vatican’s judicial authority as antiquated and authoritarian by turns.
Lawyers for the defendants — the lay defendants themselves chose not to attend the day’s session — presented a wide array of objections to the trial, mainly lamenting the lack of documentation given to the defense before it began.
The attorney for Enrico Crasso, who advised the Vatican on its financial investments, gave an impassioned speech attacking what he maintained were failures in due process. Referring to a ruling issued by Pope Francis in July that granted Vatican prosecutors extraordinary powers in their investigation, the lawyer, Luigi Panella, said that the move would be “impossible in any legal system in the world. But it happened here.”
Other lawyers raised issues of jurisdiction, stating that many of the charges related to activities that did not take place in the Vatican.
The defense also criticized the civil case brought by two other Vatican financial entities, the Institute for Religious Works and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, claiming that the Vatican court had no power to decide on their claims.
The lawyer for those Vatican departments, Paola Severino, shot back that their claims of injustice by the Vatican court were based only on the fact that “it’s different from penal proceedings in Italy.”
Severino also underlined the “strong moral component” of the trial. The Vatican’s chief prosecutor, Gian Piero Milano, invited the defense lawyers to look at the Vatican trial “not though the lens of a lawyer, but through the lens of a canon lawyer.”
The court has been adjourned to the morning of Oct. 5, when the judges said they would address the defense’s arguments.