VATICAN CITY – The Vatican's latest corruption scandal already had all the elements of a spy thriller: One cardinal who was fired during a “surreal" nighttime audience with the pope. Another cardinal, the nemesis of the first, who returned triumphantly to Rome after being acquitted of sexual abuse in Australia. And a fabulous luxury apartment building in London where the Holy See sank tens of millions of euros in donations from the faithful.
All that was missing was the mysterious woman who claimed to have links to the Italian secret services, and allegedly hoodwinked them all. Enter Cecilia Marogna, a 39-year-old political consultant who was arrested Tuesday in Milan on an international warrant issued by the Vatican, Italy's financial police confirmed Wednesday.
Vatican prosecutors have accused Marogna of embezzling some 500,000 euros ($590,000) in Vatican money for intelligence consulting she never really performed, working out of a Slovenian front company and using at least half the money instead to buy merchandise from Prada, Chanel and other fancy brands, Italian news reports said.
According to Vatican documents published in Italian newspapers and shown on investigative television shows this week, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the onetime No. 2 in the Vatican secretariat of state, wired the funds to Marogna’s Logsic firm, purportedly for humanitarian operations in Africa and Asia.
Marogna has told Italian media she was a political analyst and intelligence expert who reached out to Becciu in 2015 with concerns about security for Vatican embassies in hot spots and was quickly brought into the cardinal’s inner circle.
Marogna told Corriere della Sera that over four years, Becciu wired her 500,000 euros as compensation, travel reimbursements and consultancy fees after she pitched herself as having “a network of relationships in Africa and the Middle East to protect nunciatures and missions from environmental and terrorist risks."
She defended some luxury expenditures — designer pocketbooks for example — as being “maybe for the wife of a Nigerian friend who was in a position to talk to the president of Burkina Faso.”
Becciu, who was sacked by Pope Francis last month after admitting he sent 100,000 euros in Vatican money to a charity headed by his brother, has insisted that his dealings with Marogna were legitimate.
In an Oct. 7 statement issued by his lawyer, Becciu said “the contacts with Cecilia Marogna strictly pertains to institutional affairs.”
Marogna’s arrest was believed to be part of a sprawling corruption investigation launched last year by Vatican prosecutors into the Holy See’s 350-million-euro investment into a London real estate venture, much of it funded by donations from the faithful.
Vatican prosecutors are investigating a handful of Italian middlemen who are accused of having fleeced the Holy See of tens of millions of euros in fees while the Vatican’s incompetent money managers stood by.
Vatican prosecutors haven’t indicted anyone yet, and their case seems rife with holes and potential conflicts, given the Holy See's superiors approved the contracts with the middlemen that ceded them voting rights in the deal and provided them with huge management fees.
To that extent, it’s not immediately clear what charges Marogna could face if she was merely on the receiving end of consulting fees Becciu approved. The cardinal had been given broad discretionary authority to manage the secretariat of state's assets by none other than the secretary himself, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Claiming her work was secret and involved relations with Italy's secret services, Marogna told Corriere she never provided receipts to the Vatican for her work or expenses.
Ending such sloppy record-keeping was the aim of Cardinal George Pell, a Becciu nemesis who was brought in to clean up the Vatican's finances and impose international accounting standards. Pell returned to Rome recently, after being acquitted of sexual abuse in his native Australia following a 13-month imprisonment. He enjoyed a well-publicized papal audience this week.
Becciu has not been formally identified as a suspect in the case, though when Francis fired him last month during a 20-minute evening audience Becciu said was “surreal," Francis also revoked his rights and privileges as a cardinal. That means he could eventually be judged by Vatican magistrates.
Becciu, who like Marogna is from Sardinia, has denied wrongdoing and defended the original investment as sound.
The Vatican's investigation has been unusual, in that it has been beset by leaks to the Italian media, which have largely reported positively on the progress of the probe and Francis' financial cleanup efforts.
Italian Vatican commentator Luis Badilla, writing in the much-read Vatican blog Il Sismografo, has noted that that the new president of the Vatican criminal tribunal, a former Italian magistrate, is also an editorial commentator for Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, whose expose last month led to Becciu's ouster.