Relics and Activists: Vatican Fraud Trial Spreads Across the Globe

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican’s financial trial took a series of surreal turns on Thursday when a former suspect turned star witness was expelled from court and a defendant claimed in court papers that she escorted two emissaries of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Holy See to negotiate the return of the holy relics to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The developments turned an otherwise mundane cross-examination by a former Vatican power broker on Vatican investment strategies into an unexpected drama. This underscored the peculiarity of the trial and the remarkable situation in which the Holy See found itself after entrusting delicate diplomatic, financial and intelligence work to strangers who walked through the door impressing a cardinal.

The trial originated with the Holy See’s €350 million investment in a London property deal, but has widened to include other alleged crimes. Vatican prosecutors have charged 10 people with fraud, embezzlement and abuse of power, and some with extorting 15 million euros from the Vatican to take control of the London building.

One of the main suspects in the London case, Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, became the prosecution’s star witness after he flipped and started revealing everything he knew about the other defendants. He now claims he is a victim of the crime and entitled to damages, and showed up unannounced in court on Thursday to be removed by the Chief Justice.

Also on Thursday, lawyers for defendant Cecilia Marogna filed a personal statement in which she explained her intelligence work on behalf of the Holy See in terms that sounded more like a James Bond job description. She said her work included contact with Russian envoys, meetings with Italian intelligence operatives and regular updates with secret service chiefs from Colombia, Burkina Faso and Mali, all with the aim of free a Colombian nun who had been kidnapped by al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali.

Marogna is accused of having embezzled some 575,000 euros in money from the Holy See which had apparently been intended to free the nun. Marogna claims the money was compensation and fees related to his intelligence work. Prosecutors say Marogna spent the money on Prada, Tod’s and other high-end luxury goods.

Marogna’s co-defendant, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, has previously testified that he hired Marogna as an outside security consultant, impressed with her command of geopolitical affairs, and turned to her for help after the February 2017 kidnapping of Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez in Mali. She had been kidnapped by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which financed its insurgency by kidnapping Westerners.

Becciu revealed in testimony earlier this month that François approved spending up to 1 million euros to hire a British intelligence firm to find the nun and secure her freedom. She was finally released last year.

Marogna insisted the money was not a ransom, but rather a payment to British firm Inkerman for his services. She said Inkerman estimated the total cost of freeing the nun would be 17 million euros. She said her negotiations hit a series of hitches after the Vatican’s police chief caught wind of it, COVID-19 was hit and her Italian intelligence intermediary was unexpectedly promoted.

In his statement, Marogna said negotiations for the relics of Saint Nicholas, which are held in the southern city of Bari, collapsed after the local bishop of Bari refused to give them up permanently. They had been loaned to Russia for two months in 2017, after an agreement was reached between Pope Francis and Russian Patriarch Cyril after their 2016 meeting in Havana.

Marogna’s account could not be independently confirmed. She said she never had a contract with the Holy See for her services and was never asked to provide receipts on how she justified her expenses.

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