T.S. Eliot may well be the greatest of all American poets, and his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men” contains perhaps the most-quoted lines of any 20th century American literary work, usually by people who have no idea where the lines come from: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”
By “hollow men,” Eliot meant people who are spiritually dead. His line, however, also comes to mind these days with reference to the Vatican’s much-ballyhooed “trial of the century,” which may itself turn out to be fairly hollow too.
The presiding judge, veteran Italian jurist Giuseppe Pignatone, appeared to hint at the possibility that a trial intended to provide a sweeping confirmation of the success of Pope Francis’s financial reforms could end before it’s even begun, saying, “It’s clear we need more time before starting. If we manage to start.”
The trial pivots on a failed $400 million real estate deal in London, one in which Vatican prosecutors allege that defendants swindled the Vatican out of millions, and, for the very first time, features a Prince of the Church among the indicted – Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the former “substitute” in the Secretariat of State, effectively the pope’s chief of staff.
After a hearing Wednesday in which defense attorneys once again demanded that charges be dropped for prosecutorial misconduct, Pignatone set a deadline of Dec. 1 for the court to issue its ruling as to whether any trial at all is possible given the circumstances.
At issue is whether the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, the prosecution in the case, has turned over all relevant information to the defense.
Back in July, the prosecutors filed a lengthy bill of indictment with the court along with almost 19,000 pages of supporting documentation, including written transcripts of their interviews with witnesses in the case. However, it emerged that in many cases the prosecutors had made audio or video recordings of those interviews.
Among the video recordings were the prosecutors’ exchanges with Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, the start witness in the case. Perlasca had been the head of the financial affairs office within the Secretariat of State, and, in effect, was one of the architects of the London deal. When it fell apart, he got ahead of the curve and volunteered to testify against his former colleagues.
Naturally, defense lawyers wanted access to the recordings, arguing that they had a right to compare them against the transcripts and to see if they provided context or nuance difficult to express in print.
Pignatone agreed and ordered prosecutors to turn them over by early August. The prosecutors flatly refused, citing privacy concerns. That was shot down by Pignatone in early October, who once again demanded that the tapes be submitted to the court and made available to the defense. This time prosecutors complied, but the 52-DVD set of recordings they submitted contained 38 separate “omissions,” meaning places where material had been cut or obscured, justified only by the vague formula “investigative exigencies.”
That set the stage for Wednesday’s hearing, where Pignatone once again insisted that all material be turned over to the court, including the missing bits from the tapes – which could amount to as much as two hours of material.
During the same hearing defense attorneys demanded what amounts to a mistrial, insisting there’s no provision for editing evidence in the rules of procedure for a Vatican trial and that, by now, their right to mount an adequate defense has been fatally compromised.
Adding to the unanswered questions, the portions of the recordings that weren’t obscured included an interrogation of Perlasca in which one of the prosecutors, Italian lawyer Alessandro Diddi, makes on off-hand reference to a conversation between officials of the Promoter of Justice and Pope Francis.
“Before doing what we’re doing, we went to the Holy Father and we asked him what happened,” he said. “I can doubt anything, but not the Holy Father.”
The problem is that the reference to a meeting with the pope had been conveniently omitted from the written summary of the interrogation provided back in August, and it raised questions about whether Perlasca’s testimony had been influenced by threats of negative disclosures from the pope.
Defense lawyer Luigi Panella, representing one of the Italian businessmen in the case, put things this way.
“If you watch the video, it’s clear that Perlasca’s face changes expression [at the mention of the pope] and he appears upset, devastated. The scenario is this: The Promoter of Justice goes to the pope to talk about things relevant to the charges, even if the pope can’t be called [as a witness] and there’s no transcript. It’s unheard of – such a thing has never happened. I repeat, watching the video it’s obvious that the impact that the words of the Promoter of Justice on Perlasca were devastating, and it explains why, on August 31, Perlasca appeared without a lawyer and made a series of declarations that were different and contrary to what he’d said in April.”
Diddi, for his part, denied there actually was any conversation between the Promoter of Justice and Pope Francis, claiming that his comments to Perlasca were based on an interview the pope had given to a journalist in November 2019.
Pignatone may have special motives for being leery of Diddi’s claims, and not just due to anything that’s happened in a Vatican courtroom. A few years ago Pignatone and Diddi squared off in a case called “Mafia Capitale,” involving charges of collusion between public officials and an alleged mob boss represented by Diddi. Pignatone won convictions that were considered the capstone of his career, but Diddi eventually got his client off the hook on appeal.
Presumably, we’ll see what Pignatone and the court make of all this in a couple of weeks. For now, it seems clear that whatever happens, the trial that was supposed to put an exclamation point on a new era of transparency may actually raise more questions than it answers.