VATICAN CITY –
The Vatican court hearing a financial fraud case heard from an unusual witness on Thursday, when a secret recording of Pope Francis was presented to the court regarding payments from the Holy See to free a nun held hostage by militants linked to al-Qaeda.
The broadcast of the Pope’s own voice in the courtroom marked a surreal new chapter in a trial that has already seen many twists and turns as Vatican judges try to determine who, if anyone, is criminally responsible for the loss of tens of millions of euros of assets of the Holy See.
Vatican prosecutors introduced the recording into evidence Thursday, saying it was part of a trove of documents recently obtained from Italian financial police investigating a Sardinian charity linked to Cardinal Angelo Becciu, a former close aide to François who is one of the 10 defendants in the case. Vatican trial.
Vatican prosecutors have revealed that the Sardinian evidence has also been added to a new Vatican investigation in which Becciu is being investigated for an alleged criminal conspiracy.
According to prosecutor Angelo Diddi, Becciu and a family associate secretly recorded Francis on July 24, 2021, three days before the start of the Vatican trial, when Becciu spoke to him by phone from his Vatican apartment. While most of the defendants face charges related to the Vatican’s €350 million investment in London property, Becciu is on trial for alleged abuse of power and embezzlement in relation to his dealings with an analyst at self-proclaimed security who is also on trial, Cecilia Marogna.
In the recording, Becciu asks Francis to essentially confirm that the pope had authorized payments to a British company that Marogna had identified to negotiate the freedom of a Colombian nun who was kidnapped in 2017 in Mali. Francis, who had just been released from a 10-day hospital stay, knew about the case and was essentially okay with it, according to several lawyers who heard the recording. The presiding judge ordered reporters to leave the courtroom while the recording was played, on the grounds that it had not yet been formally admitted into evidence.
Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez was kidnapped in Mali in February 2017 by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which had funded its insurgency by kidnapping Westerners. During his captivity, the group periodically showed Narvaez on video asking for help from the Vatican.
Becciu had told the court on May 5 that he had discussed his fate with Francis and that the pontiff had agreed to spend up to 1 million euros to hire the British company Inkerman Group, in order to find the nun and ensure his freedom. She was finally released last year and met the pope.
While the recording cast a dubious light on Becciu for secretly recording the pope, it backed up claims by Becciu and other defendants that Francis was indeed familiar with, and in some cases approved of, some of the expenses that are at issue in the lawsuit. There is no provision in Vatican law for the pope to be questioned in a criminal trial, but defense attorneys said they wanted to ask him what he knew about various financial decisions, and said the audio recording bolstered their argument that the pope’s testimony is essential to the trial.
Prosecutors have charged Italian brokers and Vatican officials with a host of financial crimes, including fraud, embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power. In the London case, they accuse the defendants of having defrauded the Holy See and then of having extorted 15 million euros from the Vatican to acquire control of the property.
For the first time, the Vatican court heard this week that the Holy See had lost more than 100 million euros on the property’s transaction alone, having sold the property this year for some 186 million pounds after having spent 275 million to buy it.
The Vatican official most closely associated with the deal, Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, spoke for the first time Thursday in some of the most eagerly awaited testimony, and immediately blamed his deputy for the fiasco. Perlasca had originally been a key suspect in the investigation, but in August 2020 he changed his story and is now considered an injured party in the case.