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Vatican indicts 10, including a cardinal, in London deal

July 3, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Friday, Sept. 25, 2020 file photo, Cardinal Angelo Becciu looks down as he meets the media during a press conference in Rome. The Vatican's criminal tribunal on Saturday, July 3, 2021 indicted 10 people, including a cardinal, and four companies on charges including extortion, abuse of office and fraud in connection with the Secretariat of State's 350 million-euro investment in a London real estate venture. Also indicted was another once-powerful Holy See official, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who helped engineer the initial London investment when he was the chief of staff in the Secretariat of State. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)
FILE - In this Friday, Sept. 25, 2020 file photo, Cardinal Angelo Becciu looks down as he meets the media during a press conference in Rome. The Vatican's criminal tribunal on Saturday, July 3, 2021 indicted 10 people, including a cardinal, and four companies on charges including extortion, abuse of office and fraud in connection with the Secretariat of State's 350 million-euro investment in a London real estate venture. Also indicted was another once-powerful Holy See official, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who helped engineer the initial London investment when he was the chief of staff in the Secretariat of State. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)

ROME (AP) — A Vatican judge on Saturday indicted 10 people, including a once-powerful cardinal, on charges including embezzlement, abuse of office, extortion and fraud in connection with the Secretariat of State’s 350 million-euro investment in a London real estate venture.

The president of the Vatican’s criminal tribunal, Giuseppe Pignatone, set July 27 as the trial date, though lawyers for some defendants questioned how they could prepare for trial so soon given they hadn’t yet formally received the indictment.

The 487-page indictment request was issued following a sprawling, two-year investigation into how the Secretariat of State managed its vast asset portfolio, much of which is funded by donations from the faithful. The scandal over its multimillion-dollar losses has resulted in a sharp reduction in donations and prompted Pope Francis to strip the office of its ability to manage the money.

Five former Vatican officials, including Cardinal Angelo Becciu and two officials from the Secretariat of State, were indicted, as well as the Italian businessmen who handled the investment.

Vatican prosecutors accuse the main suspects of bilking millions of euros from the Holy See in fees, bad investments and other losses related to financial dealings that were funded in large part by Peter’s Pence donations to the pope for works of charity. The suspects have denied wrongdoing.

One of the main suspects, Italian broker Gianluigi Torzi, is accused of having extorted the Vatican of 15 million euros to turn over ownership of the London building in late 2018. Torzi had been retained by the Vatican to help it acquire full ownership of the building from another indicted money manager who had handled the initial investment in 2013, but lost millions in what the Vatican says were speculative, imprudent deals.

Vatican prosecutors allege Torzi inserted a last-minute clause into the contract giving him full voting rights in the deal.

The Vatican hierarchy, however, signed off on the contract, with both the pope’s No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and his deputy approving it. Neither was indicted. In addition, Francis himself was aware of the deal and Torzi’s involvement in it.

Vatican prosecutors say the Vatican hierarchy was hoodwinked by Torzi and aided in part by an Italian lawyer — who was also indicted Saturday — into agreeing to the terms. The Secretariat of State intends to declare itself an injured party in the case.

Torzi has denied the charges and said the accusations were due to a misunderstanding. He is currently in London pending an extradition request by Italian authorities, who are seeking to prosecute him on other financial charges. His representatives said they had no immediate comment Saturday since they hadn’t yet seen the indictment.

Also indicted was a onetime papal contender and Holy See official, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who helped engineer the initial London investment when he was chief of staff in the Secretariat of State.

Francis fired him as the Vatican’s saint-making chief last year, apparently in connection with a separate issue: Becciu’s 100,000-euro donation of Holy See funds to a diocesan charity run by his brother.

Becciu had originally not been part of the London investigation but was included after it appeared that he was behind the proposal to buy the building, prosecutors say, alleging that he also interfered in the investigation.

In a statement Saturday issued by his lawyers, Becciu insisted on the “absolute falsity” of the accusations and denounced what he said was “unparalleled media pillory” against him in the Italian press.

“I am the victim of a plot hatched against me. And I have been waiting for a long time to know any accusations against me, to allow myself to promptly deny them and prove to the world my absolute innocence,” he said.

One of Becciu’s proteges, self-styled intelligence analyst Cecilia Marogna, was indicted on separate embezzlement charges. Becciu had hired Marogna as an external consultant after she reached out to him in 2015 with concerns about security at Vatican embassies in global hotspots. Becciu authorized hundreds of thousands of euros of Holy See funds to her to free Catholic priests and nuns held hostage in Africa, according to WhatsApp messages reprinted by Italian media.

Her Slovenian-based holding company, which received the funds, was among the four companies also ordered to stand trial.

Marogna says the money was compensation for legitimate intelligence work and reimbursements. Prosecutors say she spent the money on luxury purchases that were incompatible with the humanitarian scope of her company.

In a statement Saturday, her legal team said Marogna had been prepared for months to “provide a full accounting of her work and fears nothing about the accusations made against her.”

Also indicted were the former top two officials in the Vatican’s financial watchdog agency, for alleged abuse of office. Prosecutors say by failing to stop the Torzi deal, they performed a “decisive function” in letting it play out.

The lawyer for the former office director, Tommaso di Ruzza, said he had only seen the Vatican press statement about the allegations but insisted that his client “has always acted in the most scrupulous respect of the law and his office duties, in the exclusive interest of the Holy See.”

The former head of the office, Rene Bruelhart, defended his work and said his indictment was a “procedural blunder that will be immediately clarified by the organs of Vatican justice as soon as the defense will be able to exercise its rights.”

A former Secretary of State official, Monsignor Mauro Carlino, expressed shock at his indictment on alleged extortion and abuse of office charges, saying his only involvement in the deal was after he was ordered by his superiors to negotiate Torzi down from a 20 million euro fee to 15 million euros.

“It seems incomprehensible that a worthy act ... that brought him no personal advantage and had on the contrary provided a significant savings for the Secretariat of State, could lead to an indictment,” said a statement from his lawyer, Salvino Mondello.