- In Rome by David Giglione & Mark Lowen, Rome correspondent
- BBC News
A Vatican court has sentenced Italian Cardinal Angelo Pecchio, a former adviser to Pope Francis, to five and a half years in prison for financial crimes.
Peque, 75, is the most senior Vatican official to face such allegations and was once seen as a papal contender.
The investigation focused on the London property deal, which caused huge losses to the Catholic Church.
He vehemently denied the allegations of embezzlement and abuse.
Cardinal Begue’s lawyer said his client is innocent and will appeal.
He was on trial along with nine other defendants. All were convicted of some crimes and innocent of others.
The case, which exposed infighting and manipulation in the highest Vatican ranks, dragged on for two and a half years.
After three judges deliberated the verdict for more than five hours, court president Giuseppe Pignadone announced that Cardinal Peque was accused of fraud.
Others, who included financiers, lawyers and former Vatican employees, were charged with various crimes including fraud, money laundering and abuse of office. They all denied wrongdoing.
“We reaffirm Cardinal Angelo Becciu’s innocence and will appeal,” Becciu’s lawyer Fabio Viglione said after the verdict. “We respect the ruling, but we will certainly appeal.”
The case — the first trial of a cardinal standing before a Vatican court — is the stuff of intrigue and skullduggery. It includes allegations of financial malfeasance at the top of the Vatican, the kind of cloak-and-dagger activity that often characterizes the secretive world of the Holy See.
It centers not in the Vatican or in Rome, but in a building a thousand kilometers away in London – 60 Sloane Avenue, a former warehouse owned by the department store Harrods, in cozy Chelsea.
In 2014, the Vatican spent more than 200m ($220m; £170m) to buy a 45% stake in the building, which was planned to be converted into luxury apartments. By 2018, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State had decided to purchase the property in its entirety, sinking a further €150 million into the purchase. Allegedly the signatory of the entire agreement was Cardinal Piqueu, the Vatican’s vicar for public affairs at the time – in effect the Pope’s commander-in-chief.
Part of the money was used for charitable purposes, paid to a foundation run by London-based Italian financier Raffaele Mincione, who arranged the purchase. When the secretariat later sought financial help from the Vatican’s own bank, it sparked concern — and a raid by Vatican police led to charges against Bequie, Mincione and eight others.
But the investigation into Bechiu’s affairs was not limited to the London property deal.
The cardinal is also accused of paying large sums of money to his own diocese in Sardinia, some of which reportedly benefited his family. He is said to have paid almost €600,000 to another accused, Cecilia Marogna, to help free a nun kidnapped in Mali. Prosecutors said he instead spent more money on luxury goods and vacations. Marogna, who offered his services to the Vatican as an intelligence expert, visited Becheu’s residence on several occasions. Both denied having sex.
The charges against Becciu make him the first cardinal to be tried for financial crimes. That prompted Pope Francis to include the right to vote at a future conclave to elect Francis’ successor.
After he was excommunicated by the Pope in 2020, he held a press conference declaring his innocence.
“Until 6:02 p.m. Thursday I felt like a friend of the Pope and a faithful executor of his will,” said Cardinal Bechiu. “Then the Pope says he no longer has faith in me.”
The whole affair has become a test case for Pope Francis’ aim to fix the Vatican’s finances, which have long been plagued by corruption, by ousting his predecessor, Benedict XVI, from the papacy.
The outcome of the case could have significant implications for Francis’ legacy as a reformer.