VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Facing accusations that he failed to prevent a catastrophic real estate deal that prosecutors say cost the Catholic Church $384 million, the former chief of the Vatican’s financial watchdog agency told a judicial tribunal on Tuesday (April 5) that he is innocent.
“I am firmly convinced I have not committed any crime,” said René Brülhart, adding that he “was offended” by the charges against him claiming that he “brought advantage to people I don’t even know.”
Brülhart was president of ASIF, the Supervisory and Financial Information Authority at the Vatican, from 2014 until he resigned in November 2019. He is among 10 defendants at a trial surrounding the purchase of prime real estate in London’s Chelsea district.
In 2014, the Vatican’s influential Secretariat of State bought a $219 million minority stake in a fund belonging to Italian financier Raffaele Mincione that owned an apartment complex in Chelsea. The investment quickly proved a money loser for the Vatican due to unexpected legal fees and the discovery of a $120 million debt on the property.
Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the Vatican’s sostituto, the equivalent of chief of staff to the powerful secretary of state, attempted to take full ownership of the company soon after being appointed in 2019, only to enter another unfavorable deal with the entrepreneur Gianluigi Torzi that cost the church another $17 million to exit.
Vatican prosecutors have charged Torzi with fraud, extortion and money laundering, and Mincione with fraud, embezzlement and money laundering. Brülhart is charged with abuse of office.
Vatican prosecutors believe Brülhart, responsible during his Vatican tenure for preventing money laundering, should have stopped the deal. But the 47-year-old Swiss lawyer told judges that his agency, then known as AIF, was not commissioned to oversee deals made by the Secretariat of State, saying its main focus was the Institute for Religious Works, known as the Vatican bank.
Brülhart said he held meetings on the London deal with Peña Parra, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Pope Francis. “I always confronted my superiors with transparency,” he said.
Brülhart also said that despite suggesting to the Secretariat of State that it avoid dealing with Torzi, “the Secretariat of State wished to proceed in any case, meaning that they wanted to conclude the deal with Torzi despite the risks that had been presented by the legal team in London” that assisted the secretariat in the deal.
Vatican prosecutors countered that Brülhart served as a financial consultant for the Secretariat of State, even while serving at AIF. Brülheart, repeating that his agency had no oversight over the Secretariat of State, said that when Francis appointed him to his position, the pope was fully aware of Brülheart’s other roles at the Vatican.
Tuesday’s session of the trial included further testimony from Monsignor Mauro Carlino, a Secretariat of State official, who told the judges that Torzi, eager to close the deal with the Vatican, had threatened to sell the property, which would have resulted in greater losses for the church. Carlino’s testimony supported Vatican prosecutors’ claim that Torzi is guilty of extortion.
The Vatican trial will resume April 27, when judges will hear the testimony of the former director of ASIF, Tommaso di Ruzza. The interrogation of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, originally scheduled for Thursday, has been postponed to May 5 due to scheduling issues with his legal team.