A Swiss playboy, a femme fatal spy and a powerful Italian cardinal are preparing to stand trial in the Vatican’s biggest corruption probe that has changed the way the Holy See conducts criminal justice.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, 73, once one of Pope Francis’ closest confidants, is accused of syphoning off at least 100,000 euros from Vatican funds to help his brother in Sardinia, but also of trying to sabotage a wider investigation that landed him and nine other defendants on the dock.

The case centres around a botched real estate deal involving a former Harrods’ warehouse converted into luxury flats, on which the Vatican lost an undisclosed figure, running into millions of pounds, mostly coming from donations to Peter’s Pence, the papal charity fund.

History will be in the making when the trial begins on Tuesday as it is the first time a Cardinal – or so-called “Prince of the Church” – is facing charges before a Vatican criminal court, thanks to a recent papal reform that stripped cardinals of the privilege to be judged only by their peers, rather than professional judges.

Cardinal Becciu, pictured here with Pope Francis, is the first cardinal to go on trial.

Credit: Stefano Spaziani /Avalon

“It shows not only that cardinals are not above the law – something Pope Francis made clear – but that the Vatican itself has judicial resources which it is willing to invest in prosecuting and convicting Vatican officials,” Austen Ivereigh, a British biographer of the pope, told the Sunday Telegraph.

“I think a lot is hanging on this trial. If the prosecutors have done their job and the new machinery works well, it will be a breakthrough.”

In their 487-page indictment, seen by the Sunday Telegraph, prosecutors claim to have uncovered “a rotten predatory and lucrative system, sometimes made possible thanks to limited but very effective internal collusion and connivance.”

It allowed a motley crew of financiers to use Vatican donations "as a sort of ATM”.

Other defendants include: Raffaele Mincione, a playboy Italian financier once engaged to the model Heather Mills before she married and then divorced Sir Paul McCartney; Cecilia Marogna, an Italian intelligence expert nicknamed the Vatican’s Mata Hari; and Fabrizio Tirabassi, a long-serving Vatican accountant found to have a Swiss bank account with 1.3 million euros and a collection of precious coins and medals worth 8.5 million euros.

Raffaele Mincione (left), a playboy Italian financier once engaged to the model Heather Mills (not pictured)

Credit: David M. Benett
/Getty Images Europe

The Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s central bureaucracy, bought a 45 per cent stake in the London property in 2014, via a 200-million-dollar investment in a fund run by Mr Mincione that included other holdings. 

The operation was negotiated during Cardinal Becciu’s time as “Substitute” of the Secretariat of State, a highly powerful position akin to Vatican chief of staff.

Court documents show that four years later, a new substitute decided to cut ties with Mr Mincione, after he ran up significant losses and stopped returning calls and emails. 

But the financial bleeding continued. Mr Mincione was given a 40-million-pound payoff, but the Secretariat of State also paid 15 million euros to another middleman, Gianluigi Torzi, who demanded more money to let the Vatican secure full ownership of the Sloane Avenue flats. 

The former Harrods Depository building at 60 Sloane Avenue in London, now converted into offices and retail space.

Credit: Bailey-Cooper Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the pope’s deputy, signed off on the deal, but prosecutors say he was hoodwinked into doing it.

Mr Tirabassi, a key player in the negotiations with Mr Torzi and Mr Mincione and who is accused of corruption, extortion, embezzlement, fraud and abuse of office, in the indictment was once told “you are either a crook or an idiot” by a lawyer who reviewed his conduct, prosecution papers show. 

Mr Torzi faces similar charges, including money laundering.

There is no suggestion that Cardinal Becciu lined his own pockets – instead, he is accused of raiding Vatican funds to help family members and proteges like Ms Marogna, who received 575,000 euros, ostensibly to pay for the release of nuns and priests kidnapped by terrorist groups. 

Cecilia Marogna, an Italian intelligence expert nicknamed the Vatican’s Mata Hari

Credit: MySpace

Investigators claim she spent much of it on luxury goods, expensive hotels and restaurants. Like all the other defendants, she has denied any wrongdoing.

Ms Marogna, sometimes referred to as “the cardinal’s lady” by the Italian press, was close enough to the cardinal to have an overnight stay at his apartment in September 2020, prosecutors say. 

But she has dismissed as “absurd” talk of her being Cardinal Becciu’s lover. 

As for the cardinal, he reportedly had only one word for prosecutors when he heard from an aide that they were probing his links to the woman – according to indictment papers.