Pope Francis with Cardinal Angelo Becciu, some years ago.
A verdict in Becciu’s two-and-a-half-year trial — dubbed by the press the “Vatical trial of the century” — will come tomorrow afternoon, December 16. A final reflection on this trial…
“Those who work at the Holy See and the Vatican City State certainly do so faithfully and honestly, but the lure of corruption is so dangerous that we must be extremely vigilant.” —Pope Francis, December 11, 2023, Vatican City, in remarks to Vatican auditors.
“In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.” —St. John of the Cross (his feast day was yesterday, December 14)
Letter #179, 2023, Friday, December 15: Trial #4 — Dark night of the soul
The once powerful Vatican cardinal, Angelo Becciu, 75, is now experiencing his “dark night of the soul.”
He has been experiencing it for more than three years, since accusations of corruption were made against him by Vatican prosecutors.
Becciu has maintained throughout these more than three years that he is innocent of the charges (here is a link to a 48-page account of his self-defense).
In the more than two years of the trial, the evidence that prosecutors have brought forward to convict Becciu does not show that he himself received “even one penny,” as his lawyer, Fabio Viglione, said in court on November 22, 2023.
So here we are: just before Christmas, and on the eve of a verdict… the two key figures in this trial just before it ends are: Cardinal Becciu, and… Pope Francis.
Only by trying to understand these two men can we hope to understand this trial, and the coming verdict, whatever it is.
As American Catholic canon lawyer and writer Ed Condon noted recently in The Pillar, Pope Francis has at times “made pointedly personal gestures of support towards Becciu — saying private Masses in the cardinal’s Vatican apartment and inviting him to attend public meetings and liturgies alongside other cardinals.” But, Condon adds, “the Pope has also done nothing to halt the trial.”
The key question
Does Pope Francis wish to see Becciu cleared, or convicted?
(Note: the Pope — at least in theory — has the authority to decide the case; as the highest authority in the Church, and in Vatican City State, he can overturn the verdict of the court.)
Pope Francis, it seems, allowed the trial to begin in 2021, and seems to have desired it to proceed to its end despite its length, many complications, and strange twists and turns, so that, by following the evidence gathered by the seizure of dozens of computers and cell phones, with thousands of private emails and chat messages, a prosecution case might be constructed and, in the end, justice might be done…
Yet — and this is a grave problem with this particular trial — evidence proving guilt “beyond reasonable doubt” is notoriously difficult to obtain, witnesses’ memories are fallible, prejudices and emotions can affect testimony, witnesses can (yes) tell lies, and prosecutions, anxious to convict, can invent accusations, “rig” trials by withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense attorneys, and intimidate and even “railroad” witnesses, so that a verdict intended to be “in keeping with the evidence presented” may not in the end be… a just verdict.
And there is reason to believe some of these problems bedeviled the gathering and presentation of the evidence in this massive Vatican trial with 10 defendants and thousands of pages of depositions and sometimes very strange and even bizarre testimony.
What do I mean by “bizarre testimony”?
Here is one example among many, from perhaps the key witness in the whole trial: Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, now 63.
Perlasca is from a wealthy family in Como in northern Italy, located on beautiful Lake Como and not far from Switzerland. Due to hard work and talent, Perlasca rose to the post of the top “staff” administrator in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, just beneath the “Sostituto” — meaning that, he was then-Archbishop Becciu’s “right hand man,” his “go to guy” whenever Becciu wanted anything done, from 2011 until 2018 (so, for seven years).
Then Becciu was made a cardinal and, as it were, “bumped upstairs” to become the head of the Congregation for Saints.
So Becciu stepped down as “Sostituto” and in June 2018. On the day that he left his office, he looked around and, as he later recalled, was grateful that he, along with Perlasca and all the office staff, had done their work well and without major problems during those seven years.
Only three months later, the new “Sostituto,” Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra from Venezuela, then 58, now 63, would arrive, to almost immediately face the infamous signing of the Vatican’s “purchase” of the London property during those “three days in November” — November 20-22, 2018 — when the deal was negotiated and Monsignor Perlasca, back in Rome, despite grave reservations, was urged by his own men, the men he had sent to London to negotiate the deal, to “sign, sign, sign” right then, without delay, without a full review by a lawyer, or lose the deal with ominous consequences. (That was, it seems, when the critical mistake was made, unless it was in some not yet explained way actually planned, actually intentional — it was precisely this point, among other things, that the trial was held to clarify and determine, but, arguably, did not.)
Perlasca was known to be a hard worker (I remember a number of times, as I was a regular guest in the Domus Santa Marta in those years, seeing Perlasca come back from the office late, carrying his briefcase, with a serious, almost grim expression on his face — he was the type of desk officer who often “burned the midnight oil,” meaning, he worked hard, he gave his time and concentration to his important and delicate work for the Vatican).
And note well: Perlasca was in his post even before Becciu came to head the office, chosen by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 to be “Sostituto” after serving many years “abroad” in Africa and Cuba.
In other words, Perlasca was the official who, in some ways, introduced Becciu, his boss, to the “ordinary procedures” of the Secretariat of State with regard to overseeing all the more than 100 nunciatures in the world, all that flow of information, and also financial budgets, but also all of the Secretariat of State’s investments, payments, contracts. Perlasca was the key “staff guy.” He knew if any State official knew (and this is a metaphor!) “where the bodies were buried.” Perlasca was that “desk guy” who was, quite frankly, almost indispensable.
And his relationship with Becciu became, by all accounts, one of very close collaboration indeed, and one of profound trust — both men have repeatedly stated that. Over the years they confronted hundreds of tough situations, discussed them, decided on a course of action to take in keeping with past practice, and took decisions. And, in executing those decisions, it was Perlasca, often, who “signed off” on the final wire transfers — that is, he oversaw the actual payments.
On November 24, 2022, about one year ago — and more than three years after the investigation of the facts began in 2019 — Monsignor Alberto Perlasca gave his first testimony in the trial itself (he had also given a long deposition on April 29, 2020, which was then seen as critical to the prosecution’s case).
In fact, Perlasca had been at one point a “person of interest” for the prosecution. He was under investigation himself for having committed a crime in regard to the events surrounding the London property. But then, his testimony slowly began to change. Instead of defending himself and also Cardinal Becciu, Perlasca began to give testimony implicating Becciu. And he did this by preparing his testimony with two women, one of whom was his close friend, and the other of whom had a long-standing grudge against Becciu. (All this came out slowly over many months of testimony.)
So when Perlasca took the stand on November 24, last year, and began to answer questions, the most bizarre thing happened:
President Giuseppe Pignatone (the chief trial judge, and known in Italy as a leading anti-Mafia prosecutor): [to the trial prosecutor] Ask the questions.
Chief Prosecutor Alessandro Diddi (known in Italy as a successful defense lawyer): Well… I will do so, but instead of re-asking them now, I will ask them little by little as I face…
President Pignatone: The order (of the questions) you can decide…
Note: Prosecutor Diddi then asks Perlasca if he confirms all of the testimony he had given in his very long April 29, 2020 deposition and other interrogations (which, by the way, make fascinating reading).
Monsignor Albert Perlasca: Yes.
Prosecutor Diddi: Perfect. Listen, now I just want to ask you a few questions, let’s put it that way, of illustration, to go deeper into what you already declared, beginning with what your role was at the Administration of the Secretariat of State and, if you can, for a moment detail better what your competencies are in financial affairs and how the activities for the decisions inherent in the financial investments that are made by the Secretariat of State are carried out, obviously we are interested in the period 2013 up to when you left your post.
Monsignor Aberto Perlasca: In the Administrative office I was the responsible (“responsabile“) in the sense that I coordinated, as primus inter pares [a Latin phrase meaning “first among equals”] the work between the different collaborators and acted as the only interface with the Superiors, who, by the way, could deal with some questions also directly with my collaborators. It did not happen frequently, but it could happen…
Italian lawyer Fabio Viglione (chief defense counsel for Cardinal Becciu): [rises to make an objection to the chief judge] Mr. President! But he is reading!
Monsignor Alberto Perlasca: Excuse me?
Judge Pignatone, the President of the trial: You must not read, you must respond, they are two concepts that are completely different. So I pray you to put away the papers that you have prepared. The Promotor [the prosecutor, Diddi] asks the questions, you answer the questions without reading already-prepared answers.
Prosecutor Diddi: [accepting the Judge’s ruling, speaking to Perlasca] I ask you, yes, going beyond what you have written, these are not things… [meaning, these are not such controversial things that one would have to rely on written, prepared texts…]
And the questioning continues.
This fact — that Perlasca was reading his answers as he began to testify — is as bizarre a moment in a trial as one may imagine.
Since we know that Perlasca’s testimony was prepared in part with the help of two women, one his friend who wished him to be declared innocent, the second an enemy of Cardinal Becciu, we must see in this little scene evidence that Perlasca’s entire testimony was carefully thought out and prepared in advance and written down. Is this not witness tampering?
If it is, it would mean that the “star witness” against Becciu (that witness’s old boss) in this case, ought to have been disqualified.
Indeed, just a few days ago, Diddi himself, almost at the last moment of his 5-hour wrap-up of his case, at the very end of this trial, said that it was at first thought, and declared in the press, that Perlasca’s testimony was the “cornerstone” of the prosecution’s case, but now he and the prosecution as a whole have agreed that the value of Perlasca’s testimony for this trial was actually “zero and less than zero.”
In other words, there seem to be reasons here, as well as elsewhere, for calling this entire trial… a mistrial…
How may we understand Pope Francis?
To understand Pope Francis’ way of thinking, one might take a look at Enzo Bianchi‘s case. Well known in Italy, Enzo Bianchi, now 80, is an Italian Catholic layman famous for founding the ecumenical monastery of Bose in northern Italy more than 50 years ago.
But, after internal divisions and a call for an investigation by Vatican officials, Bianchi was ousted by the Vatican from the monastery he himself had founded and spent his lifetime building into a global center of ecumenical prayer.
On February 9, 2021, Pope Francis sent Bianchi a letter in which he revealed how he viewed the founder’s suffering; however, he did not reinstate him.
One might see some similarities between the two powerful men: Bianchi… and Becciu… and the Pope’s reaction to their “suffering”.
Here is the text of the Pope’s letter to Bianchi (the bold face text is my own emphasis):
Vatican, 9 February 2021
I received your letter dated January 20th. Thank you so much for the trust and transparency with which you wrote to me.
I have read and reread the letter, and I have further informed myself on the matter. But I have thought above all of you, my old age companion, with the ailments of age, which, for you, add to the situation that has been created and which makes you suffer, and, I confess, it makes me suffer as well.
You could explain many things, even if many cannot be explained, because they enter into the mystery of each person’s history. I know there have been misunderstandings and hurt. I know that you have done and will do a lot of good for the Church (even for me personally). I know that the Visitors have sought a solution to the problems of misunderstanding and division in the community, which also suffers. I know that many people love you.
But the most important thing I know, and what is most essential, what I as a brother must tell you, is that you are on the cross. And when you are on the cross, explanations are not valid, there is only darkness, the anguishing prayer “Father, if it is possible, remove this cup from me” and those seven words which are the foundation of the Church. When we are on the cross, those who don’t love us are content, many friends flee and disappear, only three or four of our more faithful friends remain, who can do nothing to save us, but who accompany us. Only obedience remains, like Jesus.
Dear Enzo, this is the essential part of your life today: you are on the cross, like Jesus. This is your time of struggle, of darkness, of solitude, of coming face to face with the will of the Father.
I see you like this and I want to be next to you. I pray with you. And the figure of the great Eleazar also comes to mind: many young people are looking at you.
I am close to you with the love of a brother, of a “spiritual son” and of a father in faith. Dear brother Enzo, do not come down from the cross. The Lord will heal the situation.
With love, yours
What does this mean?
Before justice, before the Church, before the whole world… before God… what is Pope Francis doing?
Seemingly aware of the profound suffering a man is enduring — both in the case of Bianchi ousted from his own monastery, and of Becciu losing his good name and some of his rights as a cardinal even before this bizarre “trial of the century” began many years ago (where is “innocent until proven guilty?’) — Francis is publicly silent.
Francis writes to Bianchi. “When you are on the cross, explanations are not valid, there is only darkness… Do not come down from the cross.”
He writes: “When we are on the cross, those who don’t love us are content, many friends flee and disappear, only three or four of our more faithful friends remain, who can do nothing to save us, but who accompany us.”
Francis in these lines is giving us the highest mystical theology of his pontificate.
He is also giving us the deepest insight into his own mind and soul.
The cross imagery means he is talking about Christ, there is no doubt.
And he is saying that Bianchi is on the cross, like Christ, and cannot come down, must not come down, must imitate Christ.
And he is also saying, in his months and years of silence as this trial has unfolded, that Becciu is on the cross, and that he must stay on the cross.
He is finally saying that he, too, is “on the cross.”
He is a Pope on the cross.
Loved by some, rejected and vilified with real bitter hatred by others who condemn him as an apostate and a dictator, he lives his fully-observed life in the Domus Santa Marta, surrounded by monsignors working in the Vatican and by guests who have no idea of what he has gone through in his life — from the poverty of his father, to the death of a woman friend he respected and loved, Esther Ballestrino de Careaga (January 20, 1918-disappeared December 18, 1977; believed to have died from being dropped while still alive by the military government from an airplane high above the bay of Buenos Aires), to his own “dark night of the soul” as a young Jesuit, when his life and his mission seemed opaque to him — in the Domus Santa Marta, under observation, not walking freely in the streets of Buenos Aires where he was happy among the poor but authentic people of the barrios, and the young children chattering as they play soccer, and the old people sit and rest in the twilight of their lives…
And we in the Church, we are people on a cross. And we too cannot come down…
We, like Enzo Bianchi, like Angelino Becciu, like Jorge Mario Bergoglio — we are on the cross, and we cannot come down.
This is the message of the Pope at this time.
We, we like the soldiers in Ukraine, we like the Jews of mid-20th century Europe, we like the children of Gaza today — we are on the cross, and we cannot come down.
Is this all that we can do?
Accompany one another on the path of suffering? The path of the cross?
Is this the best way to bring justice? To not intervene in a process which is filled with manipulations, and potential injustices?
Is it not part of our Christian faith that we may, in the power of the Risen Christ, in the holiness of the Spirit — which was poured out on Pentecost, and then brought into our midst in all the penitent souls, in all the eucharistic sanctuaries of the whole world — heal the wounds, free the captives, forgive the condemned, protect the innocent, bring justice, bind up the bleeding wounds of the wounded — bind up the bleeding wounds of Christ Himself, in our brother?
Is it not also part of our faith, in addition to suffering alone in the dark night of the cross, with Christ, that He brings redemption, raises up to new life, overcomes sin and evil, brings us back to new and abundant life?
The question remains: will Francis give the thumbs up or thumbs down in Becciu’s case? Will Becciu remain on the cross (Bianchi’s case) or will he be taken down and absolved?
Leading Italian intellectual Ernesto Galli della Loggia, 81, who is Jewish and who is married to the well-known Italian Catholic writer Lucetta Scaraffia, 75, who edited a portion of the Osservatore Romanofor some years, and so knows the Vatican well, from the inside, suggested on December 11 (link), that Pope Francis may decide to find Becciu innocent.
Galli della Loggia writes:
“Hasn’t Bergoglio accustomed us during his pontificate to sudden turning points, to sudden changes in moods and perspectives, to twists and turns?
“This (declaring Becciu innocent) would put an end to a story in which the real reasons and background, the real actors, still remain in the deepest shadow and in which, perhaps, it wasn’t even the Pope himself who was really pulling the strings.”
We will know the answer to this question tomorrow… —RM