A powerful cardinal in the Roman Catholic church has been accused of financial crimes in the largest trial ever to take place within the Vatican.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu, 73, once a close ally of Pope Francis, and nine other defendants have been accused of extortion, embezzlement, money-laundering and abuse of office. All deny the charges.
Becciu was sacked as the head of the Vatican’s saint-making office by the pope last September after reports of financial misdeeds began to emerge. Francis also stripped him of his right to vote in papal enclaves, leaving him a cardinal in name only.
The pope also changed Vatican law earlier this year to allow cardinals and bishops based in Rome to be prosecuted and judged by the Holy See’s lay criminal tribunal. Previously, Vatican-based cardinals could only be judged by their peers, a court of three fellow cardinals.
The case centres on a disastrous €350m (£298m) deal to buy a former Harrods warehouse in London in 2014. A Vatican investigation found that millions of euros, including donations from the pews, were lost.
Becciu is also accused of channelling money to businesses run by his brothers in Sardinia.
To accommodate the largest criminal trial in the Vatican’s modern history, hearings are being held in a large hall converted into a courtroom in the Vatican Museums.
Only Becciu and one other defendant appeared in person, with the other eight exercising their right to be tried in absentia. At the end of an eight-hour procedural hearing, Becciu told reporters: “The pope wanted me to go on trial. I am obedient. I am here.”
The presiding judge, Giuseppe Pignatone, is a retired chief prosecutor of Rome who earlier took on the mafia and financial crimes in Sicily.
The defendants are alleged to have been involved in actions that effectively cost the Holy See tens of millions of euros through poor investments, dealings with disreputable money managers and purported favours to friends and family.
Among the defendants is Cecilia Marogna, who was hired by Becciu as an external security consultant. She is accused of embezzling €575,000 in Vatican funds that Becciu had authorised for use in efforts to free Catholic hostages abroad, allegedly using the money to buy handbags, designer clothes and other luxury goods.
The trial is expected to last for several months. If found guilty, the defendants could face jail terms.
Since being elected pope more than eight years ago, Francis has pledged to clean up the Vatican’s financial and judicial system, continuing a push begun by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
Ahead of the trial opening, Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, the prefect of the secretariat for the economy, said the case would demonstrate to the world that the Holy See was taking serious action against financial crime.
“I think [the trial] marks a turning point that can lead to greater credibility for the Holy See in economic matters. The fact that this trial is taking place shows that the internal controls have worked: the accusations have come from within the Vatican,” he said.
At the weekend, the Vatican released information on its real estate holdings for the first time, revealing it owns more than 4,000 properties in Italy and more than 1,000 abroad, not including its embassies around the world.
Only about 14% of its Italian properties were rented at market rates, while the others were rented at cut rates, many to church employees. About 40% were institutional buildings such as schools, convents and hospitals.
Following hearings this week, the trial is expected to be adjourned until the autumn.