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A Vatican court found nine defendants, including a powerful cardinal close to Pope Francis, guilty on charges of financial crimes and corruption Saturday, in what observers have described as the Holy See’s trial of the century, the Washington Post reported.
The case centers on a bad property investment in London that led to millions of dollars in losses for the Vatican. Following an investigation, church prosecutors discovered that Cardinal Angelo Becciu oversaw the transfers of nearly $220 million in connection with the London deal, some of it illegal.
Prosecutors accused Becciu and other defendants of defrauding the Holy See and demanded sentences between four and 13 years, as well as more than $500 million in restitution.
In an unprecedented move, the court convicted Becciu on three counts of embezzlement and sentenced him to five and a half years in prison. He was also found guilty of illegally funneling hundreds of thousands of euros to charities and organizations, including a Sardinian charity run by his brother.
However, he was acquitted of charges of money laundering, abuse of office and influencing a witness.
The other defendants – including Vatican officials, Italian business executives and consultants – were found guilty of financial crimes or abuse of office.
The court also ordered the guilty individuals to pay more than $200 million in total in restitution.
Meanwhile, Becciu was barred from holding any Vatican post and fined around $8,700.
The cardinal denied wrongdoing and said he plans to appeal the verdict. He claimed that the pope had prior knowledge of the London deal.
Analysts said the case amounts to both an affirmation of accountability and an embarrassment for the Vatican, as it has struggled for years to root out corruption.
Over the past decade, the Vatican bank, previously marred by scandals involving secretive accounting and money laundering, underwent a significant clean-up initiated under Pope Benedict XVI and accelerated under Pope Francis.
Vatican watcher Emiliano Fittipaldi said the Becciu case “says a lot about the pope’s will – theatrical and spectacular – to clean house.”
Even so, others have questioned the handling of the case, wondering why the Holy See would choose to conduct such a complicated, transnational investigation on its own rather than hand it over to Italian authorities who are better equipped to handle such a case.
The case and tribunal also raised questions about the fairness and effectiveness of the Vatican’s legal system, with some noting that prosecutors were bringing unwanted attention to the intrigue and infighting within the Holy See.