(CNN) – In what many call the “judgment of the century” VaticanOn Tuesday, a court in the Holy See opened proceedings against the Italian cardinal Angelo Picchio, the former head of the Pope’s office, and nine others accused of fraud and embezzlement, mainly for their role in a controversial $400 million real estate deal in London.
Vatican prosecutors described the deal as an example of a “corrupt, predatory and lucrative regime” that took shape under Piccio’s leadership.
From the start, Picio asserted his innocence, as did most of the other defendants.
Becciu is the first cardinal to be indicted and tried by a criminal court in the Vatican, as well as the first cardinal whose case will be tried by men other than the clergy. Pope Francis recently implemented a reform stripping cardinals of the privilege to be judged exclusively by other cardinals.
The case sparked widespread backlash, in part because the money used to fund the London settlement, some of which the defendants allegedly defrauded, comes from an annual collection around the world known as the “St Peter’s Alms”. Catholics as a means of support for papal charities.
The first phase of the deal began in 2014, when Becciu was still the surrogate, or “surrogate,” in the Vatican State Secretariat, making him head of the Pope’s office. He dismissed Francis Piccio from this position in 2018, then dismissed him from his subsequent position in the Vatican and stripped him of his privileges as a cardinal.
Prosecutors presented the charges in a 500-page indictment seen by CNN, backed up by more than 20,000 pages of documents. In essence, the claim is that the purchase of a former Harrod department store warehouse in London’s posh Chelsea district, which was originally destined to become luxury apartments for profit, was designed by a network of Italian financiers. secularists with the complicity of allies in the State Department, including Becciu, with the aim of extorting exorbitant fees in transactions.
While Francis won praise for allowing the indictment and trial proceedings to begin, Becciu and his allies suggested that they made him a scapegoat for the failures of more important figures in the system who were still close to Pope Francis, but were not addressed. .
The London scandal is one of several scandals that have rocked the Vatican in recent months, including the revelation that a Malta investment fund managing another portfolio of London real estate on behalf of the Pope used the proceeds to invest in the production of the film, including a biopic about Elton John. And the latest installment in the “Men in Black” franchise.
Tuesday’s hearing was expected to be largely procedural, with the trial likely to begin during the fall. The hearing took place in a large meeting room of the Vatican Museums rather than the usual courtroom of the Vatican Court to accommodate the unusually large number of defendants, lawyers, and spectators.