The macro trial that began on Tuesday at the Vatican against a dozen defendants accused of alleged embezzlement and corruption is highly relevant for three reasons: the scandal that the accusations on trial represent, not only for the Vatican as a State but also for the Church as an institution; the fact that it is the Holy See that has taken on the public conduct of the trial; and, thirdly, the fact that one of the persons on trial, the former head of the Vatican Secretariat of State, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, until recently held one of the most powerful positions in the Church.
The court, presided over by former Italian anti-Mafia judge Giuseppe Pignatone, will try to clarify the role of the defendants in what the investigating prosecutor has called a “rotten and predatory system” that consisted in making investments of dubious procedure and purpose with money coming from the so-called St. Peter’s Obligation, the instrument that channels donations from all the churches of the world to the Vatican and which, theoretically, are destined for charity. Apparently this was not the case and for at least a decade a parallel financial system was set up with practices that included fraud and money laundering. A major scandal for the Vatican, whose financial policy has been for years in the spotlight of international organizations and institutions that have demanded transparency. And despite the numerous declarations of commitment, episodes such as the court case show that much remains to be done.
Pope Francis has decided that the Vatican judiciary will be in charge of the trial instead of putting the process in the hands of the Italian judicial system – he could have done so – as a sign of his willingness to tackle and publicly condemn these practices. As a gesture it is positive, but it is likely that the Vatican judicial system is not ready. Already the first session of the hearings – the second is scheduled for the autumn – has raised reasonable doubts about the appropriateness of the decision, as there have been significant differences in terminology and procedure between Italian law, to which many of those involved, including the president of the tribunal, belong by training and background, and Vatican law. Although the Vatican now wants to act as a State governed by the rule of law, it is impossible to ignore the fact that it functions as an absolute monarchy where the Pope has the last word in all matters, including judicial ones.
Francis’ decision to order to shed light on a scandal in which one of his closest collaborators until recently is directly involved, and to do so with a certain professionalism, is positive. But it remains to be seen whether this is the beginning of a sustained policy or an exceptional situation.