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In the Vatican’s landmark trial, no one can win

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 07, 2023

As a 13-year-old chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer turned in a performance that was described by an excited observer as “the game of the century.” The title stuck, but it was undeserved. The game was not hard-fought; it was over fairly quickly. With a few brilliant moves, the future world champion routed a veteran grandmaster who had underestimated his young opponent’s enormous resources as a tactician.

The Vatican’s “trial of the century” is a similar case. In the financial-misconduct trial that is now finally drawing to a close, Vatican prosecutors appear to have underestimated the strength of the arguments that the defense could present—both before the Vatican tribunal and in the court of public opinion. The prosecution may yet secure a guilty verdict against the most prominent defendant, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, and/or some of the nine other defendants charged with a variety of criminal offenses. But any conviction(s) will probably be appealed. At best the prosecution can hope for a Pyrrhic victory.

The trial, which has been proceeding at a leisurely pace since the indictments in July 2021, arose from an investigation into the disastrous investment by the Vatican Secretariat of State in a London real-estate deal. That investigation uncovered a series of complicated financial maneuvers—deliberately complicated, it would seem—that make the legal proceedings exceedingly difficult to follow. (For anyone with a taste for the murky particulars, the coverage by The Pillar has been consistently detailed and reliable.)

The prosecution has painted a very unflattering portrait of the lead defendant. During his tenure as sostituto—roughly the equivalent of a White House chief of staff—then-Archbishop Becciu used his clout to make large investments without seeking proper advice, then strong-armed colleagues to help cover up the losses. He apparently spied on Vatican rivals. He not only shut down an independent audit, but arranged for the firing of the Vatican’s own auditor, who was asking some very legitimate questions. He could easily be convicted of incompetence as a money-manager and arrogance as a bureaucrat.

But incompetence and arrogance are not criminal offenses. Did he break any laws? On that question the prosecution’s case is weak. Time after time, when questioned about a particular deal, Cardinal Becciu could plausibly argue—with supporting evidence—that he had approval from his superiors, including Pope Francis. In a monarchical government, it isn’t easy to prove that someone broke the laws, if he had approval from the man who makes the laws.

What is true for Cardinal Becciu’s defense is also true, in varying degrees, for the other defendants. They can point to evidence that they had legal authorization for the financial transfers they made, the shell corporations they set up, the projects they undertook. They can claim that key decisions were made by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, or by Pope Francis himself—and support that claim with at least some solid evidence. They can point out that other Vatican officials—including a start witness for the prosecution—knew what they were doing. They can all ask the crucial question: Why are they facing criminal charges, while the superiors who approved their actions escape blame?

To complicate matters, Pope Francis has intervened several times in this trial, arranging the scope of the trial and limiting the evidence available to the defense. In their closing arguments before the tribunal, defense lawyers took pains to say that they were not questioning the integrity of the process. We can surely dismiss those pious statements as classic examples of the rhetorical gambit known as paraleipsis. Like Shakespeare’s Marc Anthony, assuring listeners that Brutus and his collaborators were “all honorable men,” the defense lawyers were raising the question of judicial integrity precisely by claiming that they would not do so.

And can you blame them? If the tribunal finds Cardinal Becciu and/or other defendants guilty, they will undoubtedly appeal. Their lawyers will undoubtedly say that they did not receive a fair trial, that they were convicted as scapegoats to shield their superiors from liability. They may even hint darkly that the Vatican’s judicial system fails to meet the standards of international law.

If the defendants are found innocent, on the other hand, that result will confirm the widespread impression that officials of the Roman Curia are not held accountable for their misdeeds, that the Vatican’s ballyhooed financial reforms have not rooted out corruption, that the guilty go unpunished.

When young Bobby Fischer won his “game of the century,” no doubt the young phenom, who was always intensely competitive, was delighted with the result. When the Vatican tribunal hands down its decisions sometime in the next few weeks, I doubt anyone will be happy.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Dec. 08, 2023 7:09 PM ET USA

    Justice and law are not hallmarks sadly of this pontificate.

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Dec. 08, 2023 9:21 AM ET USA

    Blessed Solemnity of the Beloved's Immaculata!!! Understand the point being made, but, isn't the conclusion more at, "its not only showing that the one is guilty, but simultaneous, also the lawmaker..." Becciu is not 'not guilty' because Francis is the lawmaker, but rather because the lawmaker is guilty too - the lawbreaker's guilt just underscores his lawmaker's guilt, both are guilty, it doesn't nullify but underscores the guilt of both...blessings