Judges in Vatican City announced this month that they expect to deliver a verdict in the sprawling financial crimes trial by the middle of December.
Chief Judge Giuseppe Pignatone said during a hearing this month that the case’s panel of judges expects to rule on the case on or around December 16.
But after a two-year criminal investigation, that long again spent in court, is the saga really almost over?
With several outstanding lawsuits connected to the case and the prospect of any decision being appealed, the Vatican financial scandal could still have months to play out, even if judges do rule in the case next month.
After more than two years of courtroom back-and-forth, Vatican City prosecutors, led by promoter of justice Alessandro Diddi, closed their arguments in July before the court went into summer recess.
Since hearings resumed in September after a summer break, separate legal teams for the trial’s 10 defendants have taken turns to present their final arguments, with the last day of hearings currently set for December 12.
When the trial kicked off in July of 2021, prosecutors deposited a 500-page indictment, naming four companies along with the individual defendants.
But despite the case’s complexity, the chief judge has announced he expects to return a verdict for the whole case within a week of hearing the final closing argument. That timeline suggests that Pignatone and his fellow judges may have already made up their minds on at least some of the charges in the case.
But trial-watchers have long noted that the strength of evidence has varied considerably from defendant to defendant, and from charge to charge, indicating the verdict could be complicated.
Sources close to the case, both for the prosecution and the defense, all agree that the most likely outcome of the trial will be a mixed verdict, with judges delivering guilty votes on some charges, while finding the case unproven on others, and perhaps excusing some defendants altogether.
That result could deliver key convictions for the prosecution, which has come under considerable scrutiny for its handling of the case and the decision to charge some figures involved with the overlapping financial scandals, but not others closely connected to the case.
In such an event, those convicted are almost certain to appeal.
While Vatican City appellate courts have a track record of upholding financial convictions, a mixed verdict could also be seen as a rejection of Diddi’s central courtroom strategy, and his legal argument that a set of seemingly disparate charges amount to a single conspiracy.
Without that strategy, the prosecution could struggle in appeals cases, where its ability to change legal strategy — rather than argue about the case it already tried — is tightly circumscribed.
And irrespective of the result in Vatican City, the Secretariat of State remains involved in legal action in other countries, with one criminal defendant bringing claims against the Vatican in UK court.
That lawsuit will continue beyond any eventual Vatican ruling, and could drag the financial scandal out for months or years into the future — and in the process expose the prosecution’s case to scrutiny by a foreign court, which could further complicate its efforts in appeal hearings back in the Vatican.
The initial investigation began by looking into the Secretariat of State’s purchase of a London building from businessman Raffaele Mincione in 2018, triggered by complaints from the Institute for Works of Religion (the Vatican City’s only commercial bank) and the office of the Vatican’s auditor general.
From there, the case quickly expanded to include accusations of fraud, embezzlement, abuse of office, corruption and conspiracy by multiple individuals connected to the Secretariat of State and the Vatican’s internal financial watchdog.
While much of the reporting on the trial has centered on the Secretariat of State’s relationship with Mincione, who worked as an investment manager for secretariat funds for a number of years, many of the charges have little or nothing to do with Mincione’s investment fund, or the London building.
Apart from his alleged involvement in the property deal, in which the Holy See lost more than 100 million euros, trial’s star defendant, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, is accused of diverting Church finds to members of his own family, as well as employing Ceclia Marogna, a self-described geo-political analyst and security consultant, as a private spy.
Other former employees and consultants of the Secretariat of State stand accused of a range of financial crimes, including embezzlement and fraud, with one investment manager accused of duping the secretariat into investing millions into a bogus highway project in South Carolina.
Prosecutors, led by Alessandro Diddi, have sought to tie all these disparate allegations and individuals into a single conspiracy, alleging a “vast network of relationships,” but that narrative has proven difficult to sustain in court.
The prosecution has also suffered several setbacks, and at times appeared to struggle to grasp the details of their own case.
Earlier this year, Diddi conceded in court that some of his department’s initial conclusions had been wrong, including the suggestion that the hundreds of millions of euros invested with financier Raffaele Mincione had been drawn from donations to the annual Peter’s Pence collection.
Independent reporting has long established that the 200 million euros invested by the Secretariat of State with Mincione came instead from loans from Swiss banks leveraged against Church assets on deposit there and obscured from Vatican auditors via prohibited accounting procedures.
Notwithstanding appeals, even if the Vatican judges return a sweeping verdict in the prosecution’s favor, it is unlikely to signal an end to the current scandals surrounding the Holy See’s finances.
Judges are separately considering a lawsuit brought against the Secretariat of State by Libero Milone, the former auditor general of the Vatican, who claims that he was forced from his position in 2017 in retaliation for uncovering widespread financial corruption among senior Church officials.
Milone announced in November last year that he would sue his former employers for wrongful termination, loss of earnings, and reputational damage over his ouster from office. At that time, he was detained for hours by Vatican City gendarmes and threatened with prosecution if he refused to resign his post.
At the time of his removal from office, the-then sostituto at the Vatican Secretariat of State, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, released a statement confirming Milone’s detention, and adding that the auditor would have faced prosecution had he not agreed to resign. Becciu accused Milone of “spying” on the private finances of senior curial officials, including Becciu.
Whether Becciu acted to block legitimate oversight of the Secretariat of State’s finances by Milone’s office is a key issue in both the criminal trial and Milone’s lawsuit.
In a key development in the lawsuit, lawyers for the Vatican Secretariat of State stated in court Oct. 18 that the Holy’s See’s auditor general did have legal oversight of the secretariat’s financial affairs, from the time an auditor was appointed in 2015 — something Becciu has consistently denied.
Secretariat lawyers argued that since the auditor’s office was created by Pope Francis and had oversight of the Secretariat of State’s affairs, the secretariat could not be held liable for the circumstances of Milone’s dismissal, since his department was not answerable to it.
But in laying out its case for dismissing the lawsuit, the secretariat’s legal team undercut Becciu’s defense claims in the former sostituto’s own dispute with Milone, and in the cardinal’s ongoing criminal trial.
Milone has said Becciu initially cooperated with his efforts to audit the Secretariat of State, but became confrontational after his team discovered a series of loans and investments obscured from departmental ledgers using accounting practices prohibited under Vatican financial law.
How the Vatican judges decide on those allegations in Becciu’s criminal trial will likely telegraph how they will rule in Milone’s lawsuit. But finding in Becciu’s favor could unleash a new round of financial scandal — potentially greater than the current trial.
Milone’s legal team have deposited more than 500 pages of evidence with the court which he says prove he uncovered high level corruption during his work and that he was forced from office under threat of criminal prosecution to shut his efforts down.
The former Vatican auditor has said he would consider releasing publicly his files on high-level financial corruption in a final effort to clear his name and restore his reputation in the event his claims are rejected in court.