The cast of characters in an historic trial that got underway in Vatican City in the last week of July is so large, if they observed COVID-19 social distancing rules, they would have spilled out of an ordinary Vatican courtroom. So instead, a crowd of defendants, lawyers and journalists were gathered in a larger room inside a Vatican museum.
Chief among the defendants are Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, once the second-in-command at the Secretariat of State, the Holy See’s central office, and two laymen who ran the Vatican’s Economic Intelligence Service. All of them are accused of connections to a 2014 investment of $240 million of Church money in a huge London warehouse, to be converted to luxury apartments. That investment and a second one doubling down on the first wound up costing the Vatican an estimated $415 million.
But Vatican prosecutors say this wasn’t just a bad investment gone legitimately wrong; it was, they say a fraudulent scheme, a honey-pot created to let insiders steal millions for themselves.
Cardinal Becciu, retains his title even though Pope Francis forced him to resign both his latest office supervising applications for sainthood and to surrender all the powers that go with the red cap and hat worn by Cardinals. He continues to proclaim his innocence, as do his several co-defendants, the two intelligence service executives, two Italian bankers bankers and other functionaries.
Cardinal Becciu is the first Cardinal to be indicted on criminal charges in a Vatican court, and he’ll be the first Cardinal to be judged by someone who is not part of the clergy. This last, is one of several significant reforms of Canon Law credited to Pope Francis, and the prosecution of Cardinal Becciu is also seen as a radical step forward by the Pope.
The trial opened with the usual paper-shuffling and throat clearing and swiftly adjourned until October when a schedule of two hearings a week will examine the charges in greater detail.
Jason Berry is an American investigative reporter based in New Orleans, an author and film director. He is a frequent columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300. It is published by University of North Carolina Press.
Jason attended Jesuit High School in New Orleans, graduating in 1966. He is known for pioneering investigative reporting on sexual abuse in the priesthood of the Catholic Church.
His book Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children (1992) was the first major book on this issue. His 2004 book Vows of Silence deals with the sexual abuse of Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, and the cover-up of that abuse. The author also adapted Vows of Silence into a film.
A more recent book is Render Unto Rome The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church. Berry has been frequently interviewed in national media in the United States, has worked as a consultant for ABC News, and contributed to the National Public Radio and is a speaker on sexual abuse issues and popular culture.
He has also written books on popular music.
Berry won his first Catholic Press Association Award in 1986 for his original coverage in the National Catholic Reporter of the clergy sexual-abuse scandals in Louisiana. He was awarded his second in 1993 for the publication of Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Berry is a graduate of Georgetown University and a recipient of the Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship for his reportage of David Duke. He and his wife live in New Orleans.