Carlo Acutis died of leukemia 14 years ago at the age of 15. Last week, he looked as though he might have been asleep as he lay under a glass sarcophagus dressed in jeans, a fleece and trainers.
The Vatican’s latest candidate for sainthood was said to have used his computer skills to spread the Catholic faith. His embalmed body, clutching a rosary, was put on public display in the Italian town of Assisi before his beatification ceremony yesterday.
However, the man supposed to have been presiding over the service – the all-powerful head of the Vatican’s “saint-making” office — was absent and in disgrace, accused of distinctly unsaintly behavior.
Little in the extensive annals of Vatican financial skulduggery can compare with the torrent of allegations against Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who was sacked last month by Pope Francis under suspicion of embezzlement and nepotism.
The 72-year-old was alleged to have drained the Vatican’s vaults with dubious, multimillion-dollar investments overseas and siphoned off funds destined for the poor to family members as well as to a mysterious young woman with a company dedicated to “humanitarian affairs”, registered in Slovenia.
Little in the extensive annals of Vatican financial skulduggery can compare with the torrent of allegations against Cardinal Angelo Becciu.
Becciu has denied any wrongdoing. But this did not stop Italians from speculating about his relations with Cecilia Marogna, 39, like him a native of Sardinia. Dubbed a “Mata Hari” in the press, she reportedly introduced herself in the Vatican, inaccurately, as his “niece”.
“I, the lover of a cardinal? Absurd,” said Marogna, describing herself as a “political analyst and expert on intelligence”. She added that she had been paid $590,579 to establish a diplomatic back channel to protect Catholic missionaries in troubled overseas territories.
It turned out, though, that she had spent half of the money on shoes, handbags and furniture. “I bought only Italian brands,” she said in her defense. “After all that work, don’t I have the right to buy an armchair?” She added: “I didn’t steal a single euro.”
Becciu was hauled before the Pope on September 24 to be stripped of his cardinal’s rights – although he will, apparently, retain his Vatican flat – after an investigation was launched into investments he made on behalf of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, the powerful central office of which he was second-in-command from 2011 until 2018.
“I bought only Italian brands,” she said in her defense. “After all that work, don’t I have the right to buy an armchair?”
It has emerged that the cardinal, who was effectively the Pope’s chief of staff, directed some of the secretariat’s money – donations received by the Vatican from Catholics all over the world – into financial derivatives that effectively bet on the creditworthiness of Hertz, the US car rental company that defaulted on its debts earlier this year. Church money also went into Rocketman, a biographical film about Elton John, as well as the companies of Russian oligarchs.
Other funds were pumped into a giant London property investment at the urging of Becciu. The idea was to convert into flats a building at 60 Sloane Avenue that was once used as a Harrods showroom. The investigation discovered that the Vatican had somehow lost tens of millions of dollars on this deal while the adviser who brokered it had pocketed millions in fees and commissions.
Italian press reports have also raised questions about the cardinal’s dealings with his three brothers in Sardinia.
Becciu was accused of sending $118,000 of Vatican funds to one of them, who runs a charity for the disabled. Another brother, a carpenter, was reportedly making furniture for the Vatican embassy in Cuba where Becciu served as nuncio from 2009-11.
Then came a more shocking claim: Becciu was accused by a rival cleric, Alberto Perlasca, of spending vast sums of church money in pursuit of a personal vendetta against his bitter enemy, Cardinal George Pell of Australia.
Church money also went into Rocketman, a biographical film about Elton John, as well as the companies of Russian oligarchs.
As head of the “economic secretariat” in 2014, Pell had been pushing the Vatican to accept more financial transparency, claiming to have found hundreds of millions of dollars hidden in mysterious accounts and ordering an external audit.
Three years later, when Pell faced accusations of sexually assaulting choirboys in Australia in the 1970s, he returned home to be tried. He was sentenced to six years in prison and served more than a year before the Australian high court overturned his conviction and acquitted him.
Monsignor Perlasca, another Vatican official, claimed that Becciu had sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to Australian witnesses against Pell. Becciu denied sending any funds to Australia, and a lawyer for one of the witnesses denied receiving any.
“The thing is that anything is credible when it comes to the curia,” said Marco Marzano, author of The Immobile Church and a sociology professor at Bergamo University. He wondered whether Becciu was being framed by a rival: the Vatican is notorious for fierce, internecine wars in which cardinals vie for influence and position.
“Maybe the one accusing Becciu is also under investigation and trying to shift the blame, saying ‘he’s more guilty than me’.” He went on: “It’s the same story every time, this is not an open organization, it is not accountable, it is too dark, too secretive.”
The Vatican is notorious for fierce, internecine wars in which cardinals vie for influence and position.
Elected in 2013 after the unprecedented resignation of Benedict XVI, the Pope has ordered the closure of some 2,000 suspicious accounts in the Vatican Bank and last week insisted that he was pushing ahead with more reforms to make the Holy See’s finances more transparent.
In an address to financial inspectors carrying out an external audit, he quoted the gospel story of Jesus driving the merchants from the temple and telling them: “You cannot serve both God and money.”
Marco Politi, the papal biographer, said: “The Pope knows you have to invest money, you can’t just put it under the mattress. But he doesn’t like speculative investments”.
The effort to clean out the stables is long overdue: the Vatican has tottered from one crisis to another since the suspected murder of Roberto Calvi, or “God’s banker”, found hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge, in London, in 1982, including the pedophile crisis and evidence that the church has for decades turned a blind eye to sexual abuse.
Many Vatican experts believe that Benedict XVI’s resignation was prompted by his butler, who blew the whistle on alleged corruption by handing stolen documents to the press. Experts are divided over whether Pope Francis can make any difference.
“He doesn’t want to brush things under the carpet,” said Politi. “But reforming the church is a very slow process.”
Marzano, for his part, offered a harsher verdict on the pontiff: “He’s a great communicator but not a reformer. After seven years, the result of his reign is evident – and not a success.”