VATICAN CITY — The first cardinal to face a criminal trial in a Vatican courtroom, once one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most powerful officials, told the court in the papal city-state on Thursday that he was ready to clear his name against charges of embezzlement and abuse of office.
The cardinal, Giovanni Angelo Becciu, is facing charges alongside nine others accused of defrauding the Vatican. In particular, the case primarily focuses on a London real-estate investment that prosecutors say lost the Vatican millions while enriching middlemen.
It was a scene that only became possible after Pope Francis changed the law of the Vatican city-state to sweep away special privileges that cardinals and bishops had previously enjoyed regarding criminal offenses.
All those charged have denied wrongdoing, and Cardinal Becciu, 73, again declared his innocence in emotional terms on Thursday.
He had been subjected to “a media massacre,” he said, reading a statement, a “violent and vulgar campaign” that questioned his moral integrity.
“I was portrayed as a corrupt man, greedy for money, disloyal to the pope,” he told the court, adding: “I am here with my head held high, with a clean conscience.”
At the time the deal was struck, Cardinal Becciu was “sostituto,” or chief of staff, in the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, where he played a significant role in running the Curia, the bureaucracy that governs the Vatican. Pope Francis dismissed him from his final Vatican post in September 2020, while the deal was under investigation.
The trial began on July 27, 2021, but had been stalled by preliminary arguments as defense lawyers raised a number of objections and motions to dismiss the case, arguing among other things that the prosecution had withheld evidence, which hampered their ability to defend their clients effectively.
The court rejected the defense motions earlier this month, allowing the trial to go ahead.
Though the case centers on the Vatican’s purchase of a building in Chelsea, one of London’s wealthiest neighborhoods, it also involves unrelated charges, including allegations that Cardinal Becciu gave Vatican funds to a charity run by his brother in Sardinia.
Cardinal Becciu had been set to take the stand Thursday, but the Vatican prosecutor, Alessandro Diddi, said he would not be able to question the cardinal because cases of Covid-19 in his office had not allowed him to prepare.
Instead, the prelate read a statement to the court proclaiming his innocence, and answered questions put to him by the chief judge, Giuseppe Pignatone, regarding two payments made by the Secretariat of State to a church account in Sardinia associated with a charity that his brother headed at the time. The prosecution claims that the money benefited his family.
In the case of the first — a payment of 25,000 euros, about $27,000 at current exchange rates, made in 2015 — Cardinal Becciu said that the secretariat had financed a bread-making machine for a bakery, “a project that gave work to young socially disadvantaged people.” He cited an May 2020 address by Francis about the dignity of work.
In the case of the second — €100,000 in 2018 — the cardinal said the money had been placed in a fund that a Sardinian bishop had set aside to pay for the construction of a social center that would house various charitable activities. The funds were still there, he added, and a ceremony had taken place last month to mark the beginning of the building work.
His brother was paid a salary by the charity group between 2016 and 2021, the cardinal said, after which he retired and began working for free.
In his statement to the court, Cardinal Becciu said that he was not afraid of the truth. “On the contrary, I want the truth to be proclaimed as soon as possible,” he said. “I have always acted for the good of the Apostolic See and the entire church.”