Scandal in the Vatican: Who is behind Cardinal Becciu's fall from grace?
Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu from Italy is seen during a consistory ceremony in 2018
Even by Vatican Byzantine standards, it was an extraordinary past week.
The aftermath of a scandal involving a shamed cardinal, a sour London real estate deal, and allegations of embezzlement and unbridled nepotism have shaken the Holy See.
The characters in this tangled and weird affair range from a Sardinian woman who claims to be an intelligence expert with ties to the secret services to a cardinal's lawyer who was forced to resign after seeing social media pictures of himself on a beach had posted in tight Speedos.
It has exposed the inability of the Vatican to handle its vast wealth, which recently amounted to € 4 billion, as well as the level of resistance Pope Francis faces in cleaning up the Augean stables of the Catholic Church's finances.
"If all these Vatican intrigues had been in a novel, I would have said they were too far-fetched to be believable," said Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church .
It was a turbulent time in the Vatican - seen here from a bridge over the Tiber - Getty
The scandal centers on Angelo Becciu, a cardinal who was effectively the Vatican's deputy interior minister and managed millions of euros in church funds, some of which were donations from ordinary Catholics.
He was forced by Pope Francis two weeks ago to resign from grace in what has been dubbed an "earthquake" by Vatican experts since a dizzying list of allegations surfaced to which he passed Vatican funds.
Among the recipients of his generosity are allegedly his three brothers, who run various companies and charitable foundations around the world, and Cecilia Marogna, a 39-year-old Italian intelligence official who claims she operates a system of "parallel diplomacy" to protect the Vatican Embassies in Africa and the Middle East before terrorist attacks.
At the center of the scandal is the cardinal's involvement in a controversial real estate deal worth 324 million euros - the purchase by the Vatican of a former Harrods dealership on Sloane Avenue in London, which is to be converted into luxury apartments.
Pope Francis is said to be furious that middlemen who brokered the deal and ordered a thorough investigation have paid millions of euros.
The property was sold by Raffaele Mincione, a millionaire financier who was engaged to model Heather Mills prior to her marriage and then divorced Sir Paul McCartney.
London-based Mincione denied any wrongdoing, saying the Vatican knew exactly what he was getting into as the sale was transparent and approved by the auditors.
Cardinal Becciu was one of the most powerful figures in the Vatican - AFP
“As with all deals like this, the fees were all agreed in advance. The Vatican was aware of the cost of the transaction, ”a source close to the businessman told The Telegraph.
"We didn't betray the Vatican, we didn't hide anything, and it now seems like sour grapes for them to complain about the deal."
Mr Mincione feels "an innocent party involved in a much larger power struggle in the Vatican".
Questions now arise as to whether the Pope's dismissal of Becciu - and the very rare decision to deprive him of his cardinal rights - was an overreaction to his alleged offenses.
There are allegations that his enemies in the Vatican are conducting a dirty trick campaign against the cardinal.
Cardinal Becciu - he retained his title but not the rights attached to it - oversaw the purchase of 60 Sloane Avenue when he was deputy secretary of state between 2011 and 2018.
Middlemen reportedly made millions of euros on the deal and initiated an investigation by the Vatican into how it apparently paid more than it should have done for the prime property.
“He seems to have made some bad investments. It's not a crime. It may be stupidity or incompetence or naivety, but it's not criminal, ”said Robert Mickens, a Rome-based Vatican expert and editor of La Croix International, a Catholic news website.
“The deal with Sloane Avenue doesn't seem to be on the high crime and misdemeanor level. There is no evidence that he fed his own pockets. "
The cardinal was also accused of having forwarded hundreds of thousands of euros as well as contracts to his three brothers.
One of them runs a charity in Sardinia while another runs a construction business that was reportedly paid for restoration work on churches in Angola and Cuba - two places where Cardinal Becciu served as the nuncio or ambassador to the Vatican.
"It may be unethical to give contracts to your brothers, but it's not illegal either. It seems disproportionate to deprive him of all cardinal rights. There are cardinals who have covered up sexual abuse and whose red hats have not been removed," said Mickens to The Telegraph.
Cardinal Becciu has protested his innocence since he was forced to resign and reiterated that position in a statement on Thursday.
He had "committed no illegal activity" and said he was "waiting calmly for the outcome of an investigation by the Vatican Public Prosecutor's Office".
He said his contacts with Ms. Marogna, the Sardinian intelligence advisor, were "strictly institutional".
All of the past week there has been a steady drop in the Italian press of stories that were deeply unfavorable to the cardinal.
Cardinal George Pell recently returned to Rome after his sexual abuse conviction was overturned - Getty
These included allegations - which he "categorically" denied - that he paid witnesses € 700,000 to try to influence the evidence they presented in the Australian trial of Cardinal George Pell, who was accused of serving as a choirboy St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne for having molested Archbishop in the 1990s. Cardinal Pell was acquitted of these allegations and recently returned to Rome.
The question is who is disclosing the Vatican documents on which all these allegations are based.
It is known that Cardinal Becciu was at odds with Cardinal Pell when he, as Minister of the Economy, began to question the Vatican's troubled finances.
"I wouldn't rule out the possibility that Pell's people facilitated some of this reporting," Mickens claimed.
Father Reese, senior analyst at Religion News Service, a Catholic agency, said: “It is clear that Becciu and Pell, as ministers of economy, clashed because he wanted to audit the entire Vatican. Becciu didn't want the State Secretariat to be audited and maybe now we know why.
“Are there any dirty tricks against Becciu or did he do dirty tricks against Pell? Only a full international investigation will find out the truth. As they said during Watergate, "follow the money". "
Ms. Marogna admits that over a period of four years she received EUR 500,000 in money from the Vatican through a company she founded in Slovenia. She said she used it for "humanitarian operations".
Cecilia Marogna says she did "parallel diplomacy" to protect the Vatican embassies in Africa and the Middle East
She believes her links with the cardinal were leaked to discredit him. There were even suggestions in the Italian press that she was his mistress, which she emphatically denies.
She believes she was used to "distracting attention from the London scandal," she told Corriere della Sera newspaper.
“The payments made to me are pints of a much larger struggle for power that has already claimed many scalps. It is only just beginning, this clash between the factions opposing Pope Francis. "
While the mud is flying, Pope Francis continues to try to clean up the Holy See's finances. On Thursday he met representatives from Moneyval, the anti-money laundering experts of the European Council, and told them that the Vatican was committed to "clean funding". He referred to the biblical story of the merchants who were driven out of the temple.
He received the team in front of a private audience in his library in the Apostolic Palace - an indication of the importance he attaches to the subject.
The Vatican underwent a rating by Moneyval a decade ago to shake off its seedy financial reputation.
The demands and counterclaims now swirling around Rome are all part of a titanic struggle within the Vatican between those who support Pope Francis' reforms and those who try to sabotage them, according to Bartolomeo Sorge, a theologian and Jesuit priest.
"Francis is the first modern Pope since the Vatican Council (early 1960s) to deal directly with the internal reform of the Church and that has given him great difficulties," said Father Sorge, the former director of La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit publication.
“This reform gives rise to scandals such as pedophilia and the poor management of the Vatican's finances. But these are signs that he's doing something serious. "
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