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Pope's own role in Vatican London deal comes before court

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Defense lawyers in the Vatican’s fraud and extortion trial accused prosecutors on Wednesday of 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 Vatican city state tribunal president, 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 of the 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 actually acquire control of the property. Prosecutors have indicted 10 people, including a cardinal, on a range of charges. 

Defense attorneys have argued that their ability to properly 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 starting in August 2020, he began cooperating with prosecutors and they removed him as a suspect.

Prosecutors deposited the Perlasca tapes with the tribunal on Nov. 3, after initially refusing a court order to do so. 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 July 29, and repeated on Oct. 6, to provide the full tapes. 

Attorney Luigi Panella, who is representing the Vatican’s longtime money manager in the case, accused prosecutors of making “unjustifiable” cuts and noted that there is no provision in the Vatican’s procedural law to edit evidence. He also cited “incongruities” between the actual videotapes and the prosecutors’ own summaries of what was said. 

Panella cited an April 29, 2020 interrogation of Perlasca in which there is no mention in the written summary of the fact 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. 

“We, 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 public statements the pope had made.

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

Perlasca, according to the transcript, told Diddi that the pope had authorized Vatican officials to negotiate a deal with Torzi. Other witnesses have said the same, and even the Secretariat of State's chief of staff, Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra, has said the pope was the one who decided that the Vatican should negotiate with Torzi and not try to sue him. 

In a memo to prosecutors, 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. Those were to sue Torzi or pay him off for the 1,000 voting shares in the deal 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.

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