Vatican vendettas: Alleged witness manipulation jolts trial
VATICAN CITY The text message to the Vatican monsignor offered forgiveness and a threat. It read: “I know everything you have… and I keep it all within my archives.” “I pardon you, Perlasca, but remember, you owe me a favor.”
The message was one of more than 100 newly revealed WhatsApp texts and other correspondence entered into evidence at the Vatican courthouse last week that have jolted a financial crimes trial involving the Holy See’s money-losing investment in a London property.
The texts have cast doubt on the credibility of a key suspect-turned-prosecution witness and raised questions about the integrity of the investigation into the London deal and other transactions.
They also confirmed that a cardinal secretly recorded Pope Francis and that a trial that was originally intended to highlight Francis’ financial reforms became a Pandora’s Box full of unintended revelations about Vatican scheming and vendettas. The trial in the city-state criminal tribunal began with the Holy See’s 350 multi-million-euro investment to transform a former warehouse for Harrods into luxury apartments.
Prosecutors have accused 10 people in the case, alleging Vatican monsignors and brokers fleeced the Holy See of tens of millions of euros in fees and commissions, and then extorted the Holy See of 15 million euros to get full control of the property.
Monsignor Alberto Perlasca was initially among the prime suspects. He was the Vatican official responsible for the secretariat’s 600 multi-million-euro asset portfolio. This meant that he was directly involved in the property deal.
But Perlasca changed the story in August 2020. He began cooperating with prosecutors and blaming his deputy, Cardinal Angelo Becciu (then the No. 2 in the secretariat.
Both the deputy and Becciu face trial. Perlasca is not on trial and his statements to the prosecutors became a source for leads that formed the basis for several charges in the indictment.
Perlasca’s testimony for the prosecution last Wednesday was marred by defense questions that saw some of his claims fall apart. Judge Giuseppe Pignatone gave Perlasca until midweek to remember who helped him write his first tell-all memo on Aug. 31, 2020.
Then came the bombshell. The text messages were compelled by the prosecutor to be introduced into evidence after he had received them. After receiving threats and advice from a woman with a vendetta against Becciu, Perlasca was alleged to have written the memo incriminating his boss.
Francesca Chaouqui, a public relations specialist, was previously a member of a papal committee that investigated the Vatican’s murky financials. She is known in Vatican circles for her role in the “Vatileaks” scandal of 2015-2016, when she was convicted of conspiring to leak confidential Vatican documents to journalists and received a 10-month suspended sentence.
According to the texts, Chaouqui harbored a grudge against Becciu who she allegedly supported her prosecution. She viewed the investigation into the London real-estate venture as an opportunity to settle her differences and indict Becciu for the alleged wrongdoing that she had discovered during her commission days.
“I knew that sooner or later the moment would come and I would send you this message,” Chaouqui wrote Perlasca on May 12, 2020. “Because the Lord won’t allow the good to suffer without repartee. I pardon you Perlasca, but remember, you owe me a favor.”
Chaouqui didn’t say what she wanted. Other messages revealed in court show that Chaouqui persuaded Genoveffa Ciferri, a Perlasca confidante and family friend, to agree to help Perlasca avoid being prosecuted if he followed her advice.
According to Ciferri’s texts the elaborate scheme was as follows: Ciferri believed Chaouqui, when she claimed that she was working with Vatican prosecutors and gendarmes in the criminal investigation. Ciferri wanted Perlasca to be helped, so she gave Chaouqui’s anonymous advice.
Chaouqui organized a dinner in a Rome restaurant, during which Perlasca attempted to obtain incriminating information. Perlasca was led by the Vatican prosecutors to believe that they had bugged the table and were recording their conversations, but no recording has been made. After the Sept. 6 meal, Perlasca provided them with a detailed note.
The dinner took place 18 days before Francis fired Becciu and stripped him of his rights as a cardinal based on information he said he had received about Becciu’s alleged financial misconduct.
Ciferri confessed the whole saga to prosecutor Alessandro Diddi in a Nov. 26 text in which she said she had schemed with Chaouqui in hopes of sparing Perlasca from becoming a criminal defendant. Ciferri forwarded Diddi 126 text messages she exchanged with Chaouqui and said Chaouqui had helped craft the August 2020 memo in which Perlasca turned on the cardinal. The implications of Chaouqui’s alleged interference were obvious to those present in courtroom. Perlasca, a key prosecution testimony, could have been persuaded by someone with a hidden agenda to give possibly false testimony about Becciu or others. Chaouqui also boasted about his close cooperation with investigators in the case.
Becciu’s lawyer, Fabio Viglione, denounced the “surreal” machinations that helped lead to his client’s indictment, saying Perlasca had been manipulated “to the detriment of the truth, the authenticity of the investigation and the honorability of His Eminence.”
Cataldo Intrieri, the lawyer representing Perlasca’s deputy Fabrizio Tirabassi, said the revelations warrant the trial’s suspension and the opening of a new criminal investigation for suspected fraud, threats and obstruction. Intrieri stated that “Regardless, there are implications to the facts that are subject of this trial.”
Judge Pignatone denied defense requests to suspend the trial. He said that the proceedings were more based on documentation about the London agreement than Perlasca’s testimony. Ciferri and Chaouqui were scheduled for interrogations in court.
Chaouqui declined to comment on her court testimony when he was contacted by The Associated Press.
Diddi supported the investigation and strongly denied any dealings with Chaouqui prior to her July questioning. He also announced that he had opened a new probe into possible false testimony and other possible crimes based upon the texts he received via Ciferri. To prove that he had never had any dealings with Chaouqui, he offered to turn over his cellphone.
” If someone brags that they know (of the investigation), I have to investigate,” he stated.
Defense lawyers privately complained that Diddi knew of Perlasca’s involvement in February 2021 but didn’t tell the defense. This was part of broader defense complaints regarding the peculiarities of Vatican’s legal system. Diddi acknowledged last Wednesday that Ciferri called him on February 4, 2021, and mentioned Chaouqui’s identity.
Diddi also received a call from Perlasca on March 1 2022,, when Perlasca filed a formal complaint alleging that Chaouqui had threatened him. He claimed that he was working with prosecutors. The written complaint was not admissible into evidence until last week. Defense lawyers claimed that it was their first inkling Perlasca might have been a compromised prosecution witness.
“She threatened me via telephone, saying that I was in her hands, and that she could save my life from certain prison. It was clear that she could influence the investigators,” Perlasca wrote.
Chaouqui was in touch with Perlasca as recently as Nov. 26. After his first court appearances, she texted him and suggested they meet up before he goes back on the stand.
” My interest, and I think it is yours, was that my support not be revealed at trial because it would prove difficult to explain all the consequences it had,” she wrote.
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