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Vatican prosecutor appeals verdict that largely dismantled his fraud case but convicted cardinal

Vatican Appeal
Posted at 8:58 AM, Dec 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-22 10:58:32-05

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican’s chief prosecutor has appealed a court verdict that largely dismantled his theory of a grand conspiracy to defraud the Holy See of millions of euros but found a cardinal guilty of embezzlement.

Prosecutor Alessandro Diddi filed his appeal this week of the three-judge tribunal's decision in a complicated financial trial that aired the Vatican's dirty laundry and tested its peculiar legal system.

While the headline from the Dec. 16 verdict focused on Cardinal Angelo Becciu’s 5½-year sentence for embezzlement, the meat of the ruling made clear that the judges rejected most of Diddi’s 487-page indictment.

Diddi had accused Becciu and nine other people of dozens of counts of fraud, embezzlement, money laundering, extortion, corruption, abuse of office and witness tampering in connection with the Vatican’s bungled investment in a London property.

He sought prison terms of up to 13 years for each of the defendants and 400 million euros in restitution. In the end, the tribunal headed by Judge Giuseppe Pignatone acquitted one defendant entirely and convicted the others of only a few of the charges while still ordering them to pay 366 million euros in restitution.

In the Vatican, as in Italy, prosecutors can appeal verdicts at the same time as defendants. Unlike Italy, both sides in the Vatican must file appeals before the trial judge explains the rationale for a verdict in writing, though the appeals can be amended later, lawyers said.

Diddi filed a three-page motion Tuesday asking the Vatican appeals court to convict each defendant on the full set of charges he originally laid out, although the tribunal ruled that many of the alleged crimes simply didn’t occur.

The main focus of the trial involved the Holy See’s 350 million-euro ($386 million) investment in converting a former Harrod’s warehouse into luxury apartments. Diddi alleged brokers and Vatican monsignors fleeced the Holy See of tens of millions of euros in fees and commissions, and then extorted the Holy See for 15 million euros ($16.5 million) to cede control of the property.

Becciu, the first cardinal prosecuted by the Vatican criminal tribunal, was convicted of embezzlement involving the original London investment and two tangent cases. The broker who received the 15 million euro payout to cede control of the building, Gianluigi Torzi, was convicted of extortion and other charges.

The Vatican’s longtime money manager, Enrico Crasso, was convicted of three charges of the original 21 he faced. But he too plans to appeal, Crasso's lawyer, Luigi Panella, said.

“Contrary to the propaganda spread, the prosecutor’s appellate motion reveals that the tribunal to a large extent didn’t uphold the accusatory formula,” Panella said in an email.

For the three crimes of which Crasso was convicted, the tribunal sentenced him to more than what Diddi had originally sought, “and this somewhat masked the numerous acquittals,” Panella said.

The verdict also did some legal gymnastics to make sense of the Vatican’s outdated criminal code, based on Italy’s 1889 code and the church's canon law, requalifying or combining charges to fit into other ones.

In his appeal, Diddi objected to the tribunal’s refusal to let him use a jailhouse interrogation of London broker Torzi, because Torzi never presented himself subsequently to be questioned during the trial. Torzi refused to return to the Vatican after he was jailed for 10 days without charge or a judge's arrest warrant in 2020 during the investigation; he only was released after he wrote a memo to prosecutors.

Diddi was able to detain him because of the sweeping powers granted to the prosecution in the Vatican’s legal system, as well as extra powers granted to him by four secret decrees Pope Francis signed during the investigation that allowed prosecutors to wiretap and detain suspects without a judge’s warrant.

Defense lawyers have cited those decrees as well as the prosecutors’ ability to withhold evidence from discovery as proof that their clients couldn’t receive a fair trial in Europe's only absolute monarchy where Francis wields supreme legislative, executive and judicial power, and used them in the investigation.

In a post-verdict essay, defense attorney Cataldo Intrieri denounced the “contradictions” of the Vatican legal system and the powers given to prosecutors, which he said resulted in an investigation and trial that were “well distant from those adopted in a state of law.”

He lamented that the defense wasn't allowed to call the pope or the Vatican secretary of state as witnesses, even though other testimony and documentation made clear both were involved in, and in some cases explicitly approved of, the decisions taken surrounding the London deal.

“The point is that a fair trial isn’t just the courtroom debate about evidence, which is certainly a fundamental element, but also an ‘equality of arms’ in the law to have access to evidence,” he wrote in the Linkiesta online daily. “The true problem, and we understood this immediately, is the anomalous concentration of power that the pope, the spiritual head of the Holy See and absolute sovereign of the Vatican state, gave to the office of the prosecutors.”

Intriere defended Fabrizio Tirabassi, a former official in the Vatican secretariat of state who received the most serious conviction and stiffest sentences: 7½ years in prison for embezzlement, extortion and money laundering. He denied wrongdoing.

Other defense lawyers also announced appeals. Some are sticking to the particulars of the case, while others appear to be gearing up to eventually take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Vatican isn't a party to the court, so it is unknown how any appeal brought there could proceed.

But some attorneys have been angling their arguments from the start to make the case that the Vatican legal system violates their European defendants' fundamental human rights to a fair trial.

Panella, for example, noted in his appeal this week that the Vatican committed to implementing the European Convention on Human Rights when it joined the European monetary convention in 2009. He alleged the Vatican was in violation of the convention, citing Francis' intervention in the investigation via the four decrees and the alleged lack of independence of judges and prosecutors who can be hired and fired by the pope at will.

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