Enter stage left – Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, the ‘femme fatale’ at the heart of the Vatileaks 2.0 scandal early in Francis’s papacy, is now back as a witness in the pontiff’s “Trial of the Century.”
Newsroom (17/01/2023 10:15 AM, Gaudium Press) — Francesca Chaouqui, a former PR officer for Ernst & Young, was appointed in 2014 to a commission advising the newly elected Pope Francis on financial reform, only to be indicted and convicted by a Vatican tribunal for leaking confidential documents to journalists. At the time, the outcome seemed to mark the end of her brief stint as a Vatican personality.
Yet last fall, amid the ongoing trial of ten defendants for alleged financial crimes, including Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, it emerged that Chaouqui had played an incognito role in advising the star prosecution witness, Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, about how to shape his testimony. After that disclosure, she was called to testify, and Friday was her first turn on the stand. (She will be back on February 16.)
To begin with, two women helped Perlasca prepare his memorandum for Vatican investigators. One was Chaouqui, while the other was Genoveffa Ciferri, a consecrated secular Franciscan who once worked as an analyst for the Italian security service and a longstanding friend of Perlasca.
Both women testified Friday, contradicting one another on virtually every imaginable point, from how they communicated – whether it was by text message or phone calls – to who suggested that Perlasca be told the input from Chaouqui came from an “elderly magistrate,” thus keeping him in the dark about her involvement. (Ciferri said she didn’t want to tell Perlasca because she heard Chaouqui “is like charcoal — whoever touches it gets dirty.”)
Ciferri also testified that Chaouqui told her she was coordinating her suggestions for Perlasca with prosecutors in the case and the Vatican gendarmes, while Chaouqui denied ever saying that, insisting her only interlocutor was Pope Francis himself.
(By way of background, Chaouqui has claimed that Francis started talking to her again around the time he removed Becciu as the sostituto, or number two official in the Secretariat of State, in 2018, and that she has regularly kept him up to date.)
Perhaps the most melodramatic moment came during Ciferri’s testimony when she claimed that at one point in 2018, she feared Becciu wanted to have Perlasca killed after Perlasca was administered barbiturates “that left him like a zombie for days.” (An article by Vatican News, the Vatican’s state-owned news agency, said that what happen is that a doctor from the Vatican health service prescribed a few drops of valium for Perlasca after a “hysterical crisis.”)
In the end, Ciferri and Chaouqui seemed to cancel each other out, making it difficult to know who shaped Perlasca’s testimony and why – perhaps, therefore, putting its evidentiary value into question.
Meanwhile, Becciu continued his apparent strategy of never failing to swing at a low pitch, insisting on taking the stand to read a statement in response to Chaouqui’s testimony.
In it, Becciu expressed open skepticism that Chaouqui has access to Pope Francis she’s claimed, saying he never even had that kind of entrée when he was the sostituto, meaning the pope’s Chief of Staff. He also denied being the one who ordered Chaouqui’s arrest during the Vatileaks process and also denied that he’s the one who blocked a papal pardon after her conviction. Instead, Becciu said he took the request for a pardon to the pontiff, who responded that he didn’t want to hear Chaouqui’s name anymore and also confirmed that her pass card to come and go inside the Vatican should be cancelled.
Finally, Becciu referred to an episode in August 2022 when Chaouqui was seen greeting Pope Francis at the conclusion of a General Audience.
Becciu quoted a letter of complaint he wrote to the pope at the time: “By receiving her you have shown solidarity with her and indirect support for her accusatory theses against me,” he wrote. “In procedural terms your act will not be seen as emanating from the pope but from the First Magistrate of the legal system of the Vatican State, and therefore as an interference in the trial.”
In return, Becciu said he got a letter of apology from the pope, who said he’d nearly forgotten Chaouqui’s history and had no idea she was involved in the trial – directly contradicting her claims of regular communication.
If there is a non-farcical reflection on all this, perhaps it’s how Friday’s spectacle arguably has confirmed the desirability of an actual separation of powers in the Vatican judicial system.
As things stand, the pope is both the supreme executive and judicial authority. In the past, that’s never seemed a problem since the Vatican tribunal was a sleepy operation mostly occupied with pickpocketing cases in St. Peter’s Square. Pope Francis, to his credit, seems to want the system to do more, holding even the most senior officials accountable if they violate the law.
As a result, the system is under greater scrutiny, and any perceived interference by the pope creates legal headaches in terms of due process and the right to a fair trial. Naturally, a pope can’t stop governing because a trial is underway, and it’s probably inevitable that some of what he does could be perceived as “interference.”
For example, in September, Francis appointed Alessandro Didi, one of the prosecutors in the current case, as the Vatican’s new Promoter of Justice. However much the Vatican may frame that as a routine personnel move when it comes in the middle of a high-profile trial, it can’t help but seem like a papal thumbs-up for the prosecution.
The only way to avoid impressions of a stacked deck is for the Vatican’s civil judiciary to be genuinely independent. The pope could still appoint its judges, but after that, the court itself would be the Vatican’s supreme judicial authority, including the power to review (and, if warranted, to vacate) pontifical acts for non-compliance with the law.
Naturally, that power would be limited to civil matters such as finance and personnel. The tribunal would have no jurisdiction over faith and morals, which would remain the sole province of the pontiff.
The Financial Aspects of the Case thus far
The Vatican City court heard January 12 testimony from Manuele Intendente, a lawyer formerly employed at Ernst & Young who first introduced Gianluigi Torzi to the Secretariat of State in 2018 during meetings with Enrico Crasso, a former Swiss banker and Vatican investment manager, and Fabrizio Tirabassi, a former official at the Secretariat of State.
Torzi, Crasso, and Tirabassi are all defendants in the current trial.
The secretariat employed Torzi to convey ownership of the London building at 60 Sloane Ave, which the Vatican acquitted as part of its terms of separation from Rafaele Mincione, the investment manager whose Global Opportunities Fund the Secretariat of State had invested some 200 million euros in 2014.
The Vatican has called Mincione’s management of its money “speculative” and a “conflict of interest, but the businessman has insisted the Vatican would have realized a profit from his fund had it not withdrawn its investment early.
At the time of the separation in late 2018, ownership of the building was transferred to Torzi’s Luxembourg holding company, and the company was meant to be turned over to the Vatican — instead, Torzi restructured the shares of the company, handing the Vatican a theoretical majority stake but keeping control of the company, and therefore the building, for himself. Torzi is accused of blackmailing the Holy See for millions of euros for control of the building.
Intendente told the court on Thursday that while he had introduced Torzi to representatives of the Secretariat of State, he had not had any say in the decision to appoint him, though had played a role in arranging the Vatican’s separation from Mincione.
As previously reported, company records show at the time, Torzi is accused of extorting the Vatican for control of the building for which they paid some 350 million euros, he made Intendente a director of the holding company he was using to commit the alleged extortion.
Previous reporting has also established that Torzi and Mincione, who is also a defendant in the trial, had a long history of business dealings. Mincione invested Vatican money in debt products marketed by Torzi, some with links to mafia-affiliated companies.
Mincione invested Vatican money into one such debt product called Sierra One bond, while Torzi, in turn, used his companies to lend Mincione tens of millions of euros during the same period.
While prosecutors questioned him as a witness on Thursday, Intendente appeared to give intentionally vague answers about his involvement in the deal and the details of how it was structured, prompting the judges to twice warn him to be more candid.
At one point during the testimony, chief judge Giuseppe Pignatone reminded Intendente that he was appearing as a witness and not a defendant and that prosecutors had already decided not to charge him — prompting the promoter of justice, Alessandro Diddi, to interject that “We came close.”
Intendente also told the court Thursday that in initial discussions about the Secretariat of State withdrawing early from Mincione’s fund, the plan was for ownership of the London building to be passed to Centurion, the controversial fund managed by Enrico Crasso for the Secretariat of State.
Vatican media called Intendente’s testimony about that proposal “previously unpublished.” But it was actually central to evidence Torzi gave to UK courts in 2020 and 2021, when the businessman successfully appealed both a court-ordered asset freeze and his extradition to the Vatican.
A judicial decision issued in March 2021 recorded Torzi’s claim that Crasso and Tirabassi had allegedly pressured him to sell the management of Gutt SA to the Centurion Fund to give them control of the building.
In fact, Torzi claims that Crasso and Tirabass threatened his life and his family when he refused to sell the management rights.
Torzi claims that Crasso and Tirabassi were direct.
He alleges they told him: “You either give up the property and go away, or your life and that of your children is at risk.”
According to a leaked audio recording of the 2018 meeting between the men, Torzi had demands of his own. The businessman demanded that Crasso and Tirbassi arrange for the Vatican to invest millions of euros in a real estate bond he was marketing called Augusto.
“Tomorrow if you don’t buy Augusto I’m in the shit,” he told Tirabassi and Crasso, according to the recording. He later offered to drop the amount he demanded to 8 million euros.
As previously reported, Torzi had to sell the Augusto bond to repay an Italian insurance company from which his companies were accused of expropriating millions.
Several of the same companies involved in the missing millions were used by Torzi to lend money to Mincione.
- Raju Hasmukh with files from The Pillar and Crux Now