Vatican holds biggest criminal trial in modern history: NPR
The Vatican is holding its largest criminal trial in modern history. The case alleges 10 people, including a once powerful cardinal, defrauded the Holy See of tens of millions of dollars.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
An unprecedented trial began in Italy today, more precisely in the Vatican. One of the accused is a cardinal. He and nine others are accused of embezzling more than $ 400 million in church funds. Sylvia Poggioli from NPR is following things from Rome and joining us on the line now.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hello.
CHANG: So tell us more about this case. It is very unusual.
POGGIOLI: Yeah, it’s really complicated. This is a botched real estate deal in London where the Vatican ended up losing tens of millions of dollars. It was a warehouse that was to be transformed into luxury apartments. Most of the money came from charitable funds known as Peter’s Pence which popes typically donate to the poor. Now the defendants include Italian financiers, former Vatican finance officials.
And the main accused is Cardinal Angelo Bachu. He was once the # 3 person in the Vatican. He is accused of crimes including embezzlement, abuse of power, money laundering and fraud. And he denies any wrongdoing. Today, he and his former secretary, who was also accused, were the only ones to appear in court. Bachu, who wore a black clergyman’s costume, told reporters the Pope wanted me to stand trial. I am obedient. I am here. But the other defendants all exercise their right to be defended in absentia.
CHANG: So interesting. Well, tell us what happened today in court.
POGGIOLI: Well, it was a very long hearing, almost eight hours. Twenty-seven lawyers representing the 10 defendants raised numerous objections. Some claim that the Vatican court does not have jurisdiction over certain crimes, or they have complained that they did not see all the evidence or that they had enough time to study. It’s some 28,000 pages.
Now what struck me was some sort of legal misunderstanding between the defense and the Vatican prosecutors. Defense lawyers cited Italian legal precedents that have nothing to do with the Vatican legal system. One lawyer, for example, claimed that recent rulings by Pope Francis that made this trial possible, such as lifting the cardinal’s immunity so that he could stand trial, did so according to a sort of special tribunal that you might see. in an authoritarian regime. Prosecutors responded by saying, hey; the Vatican is a separate state. It has a different legal system, and the Pope himself is its legislator. The trial was therefore adjourned until October 5. It’s likely to last a very long time – many months, I’m sure.
CHANG: Many, many months. Now Sylvia, I mean, there have been allegations of wrongdoing for years regarding the Catholic Church. Do you think this lawsuit is a sign that they are finally getting serious enough to crack down on this wrongdoing?
POGGIOLI: Well, that’s what Vatican officials say. This marks a turning point for greater credibility in the affairs of the Holy See. The first time a cardinal is tried for corruption in, you know, modern history is a sign that no one is beyond the law. No one is untouchable. Pope Francis is definitely determined to clean up the Vatican’s finances after decades of numerous scandals. And the head of the Vatican Economic Secretariat said that in economics we have learned that transparency protects us more than secrecy.
But there is another problem, and it is Pope Francis who is handling the whole affair. Last September Francis dismissed the cardinal from his post and asked him to relinquish all privileges of being a cardinal. And some here are wondering, how will the court judge him? Is an acquittal likely after the Pope himself returns a guilty verdict?
CHANG: This is Sylvia Poggioli from NPR in Rome.
Thank you very much Sylvie.
POGGIOLI: Thank you.
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