Pope’s role in Vatican London building deal arises in court

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Francis

Pope Francis poses for a selfie photo with faithful at the end of his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Defense lawyers in the Vatican’s fraud and extortion trial accused prosecutors on Wednesday of defying a court order by withholding pieces of evidence — including an alleged interrogation of Pope Francis — as the pontiff’s own role in a flawed London property investment again came before the court.

The president of the Vatican City State tribunal, Giuseppe Pignatone, said he would rule Dec. 1 on a new defense request to throw out the indictment. Pignatone has already nullified several charges against some defendants because of prosecutorial errors.

“It’s clear we need more time before starting. If we manage to start,” Pignatone told the court.

The trial concerns the Secretariat of State’s 350 million euro investment in a luxury London property development, much of it funded with donations from the faithful. Vatican prosecutors have accused Italian brokers and Vatican officials of defrauding the Holy See in the deal, and of extorting the Vatican of 15 million euros to acquire control of the property.

Prosecutors have indicted 10 people, including a cardinal, on a range of charges, although the trial is proceeding against only six of them for now while prosecutors redo their investigation for the others.

Defense attorneys have argued that their ability to defend their clients had been harmed by the prosecutors’ refusal to turn over key pieces of evidence, including videotaped recordings of their interrogations with a key suspect-turned-star witness, Monsignor Alberto Perlasca.

Perlasca was the Vatican official most intimately involved in the London deal and signed all the contracts with the brokers. He was initially under investigation, but in August 2020 he began cooperating with prosecutors who then removed him as a suspect.

Prosecutors deposited the Perlasca tapes with the tribunal on Nov. 3, after initially refusing a court order. But the tapes contained several cuts, which the prosecutors said were necessary for “investigative reasons.”

Defense attorneys cried foul on Wednesday, demanding that the prosecutors abide fully with Pignatone’s order on July 29, and repeated on Oct. 6, to provide the full tapes. Attorney Fabio Viglione, representing Cardinal Angelo Becciu, accused prosecutors of “mutilating” the evidence.

Attorney Luigi Panella, representing the Vatican’s longtime money manager in the case, accused prosecutors of making “unjustifiable” cuts and noted that there’s no provision in the Vatican’s procedural law to edit evidence.

Panella submitted to the court a report from a technical expert who reviewed the taped material and found that the metadata for some of the interrogation files was missing. For those that contained the metadata showing modifications made to the tape, as much as an hour of testimony had been cut, the report stated.

The lawyer also cited an April 29, 2020 interrogation of Perlasca in which there is no mention in the written summary that Prosecutor Alessandro Diddi challenged Perlasca on his version of events by saying he heard a different version from the pope. Diddi’s claim suggested contacts with the pope that were never transcribed or provided to the defense.

“Before doing what we’re doing, we went to the Holy Father and we asked him what happened,” Diddi told Perlasca, according to the videotape transcript. Diddi later said his office never interrogated the pontiff and that the reference was to the pope’s public statements.

Diddi also strongly defended the decision to edit the tapes to preserve the secrecy of what he said were newly started investigations and accused the defense lawyers of making much ado about “nothing.”

The issue, however, points to Francis’ own role in the Vatican’s negotiations with broker Gianluigi Torzi, who is accused of extorting the Holy See of 15 million euros to get control of the London building.

Perlasca, according to the transcript, told Diddi that the pope had authorized Vatican officials to negotiate an exit deal with Torzi. Other witnesses have said the same, and even the Secretariat of State’s chief of staff, Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra, has suggested the pope indicated the Vatican should negotiate with Torzi and not try to sue him.

In a memo to prosecutors obtained earlier by The Associated Press, Pena Parra said Francis had made clear by November 2018 that he wanted to lose as little money as possible to finally secure ownership of the building and “turn the page and start over.”

After realizing that Torzi actually controlled the building and based on Francis’ desire to move forward, Pena Parra said the Vatican had two choices: sue Torzi or pay him off for the 1,000 voting shares that he owned.

“Between these two options, with the advice of lawyers and experts, option No. 2 was chosen because it was considered more economical, with more contained risks and in a more manageable time frame,” wrote Pena Parra, who is not a suspect. “It also simply aligned with the desire of the Superior,” a reference to Francis.

During Perlasca’s interrogation, Diddi insisted the pope never authorized anyone to negotiate an exit payment for Torzi, cutting the monsignor off repeatedly amid a heated argument, according to the transcript.

“This story that the Holy Father told someone to negotiate is neither in the heavens nor on Earth, and fortunately the documents converge toward this conclusion,” Diddi insisted. “And to claim that there was a negotiation with Torzi because the Holy Father told you to really screams of vendetta.”

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