At first glance, it reads like the output of an Early Period Dan Brown Shadowy Catholic Subplot Generator™. The kidnapped nuns in northern Africa. The “niece” who may also be a lover. The labyrinthine multi-million-dollar property deal in the heart of ultra-prime London. The siphoning of donations from the Vatican vaults. The embezzlement and playboy financiers. The nepotism; the prostitutes; the Prada handbags.

But for 73-year-old Giovanni Angelo Becciu—the former high-ranking cardinal and de facto chief of staff to Pope Francis—it has just become all too real. Becciu, who was once considered a papable candidate for the Big White Hat itself, now sits in the hot seat at the first-ever Vatican corruption trial to be held out in the open—a landmark, drain-the-swamp jamboree that hopes to cleanse the Holy See of its lingering evil.

The $412 million case, which is riddled with sexual intrigue, greed, betrayal, and vice, seems to be the final straw for a frustrated Pope Francis, whose Church’s reputation has rarely been lower. Until very recently, a Vatican cardinal could be judged only by a court of three fellow cardinals and the Supreme Pontiff himself. But Francis has just re-jigged the rules to permit Becciu’s trial to go ahead publicly, and has even drafted in the formidable anti–Cosa Nostra judge Giuseppe Pignatone to do the skewering—a man noted for his expertise in unpicking byzantine financial crimes.

The former Harrods showroom located in enviable Chelsea that is at the center of this scandal.

Pignatone will have his work cut out here. The smoking chimney in the Becciu case is a property-development deal in central London, which involves, in no discernible order, the Secretariat of State for the Vatican; a Swiss private bank; a London-based investment fund; a Jersey-incorporated company; a Jersey-based trust; a Luxembourg asset manager; and a Luxembourg holding company.

It seems that Becciu—who as the deputy at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State acted as its unofficial head of investments—had in 2014 initially parked more than $200 million into 60 Sloane Avenue, a former Harrods car showroom with handsome period brickwork and an enviable position on the Chelsea-Kensington border.

The building had been bought with a view to converting it into lucrative luxury apartments. But a perfect storm of poor due diligence, Brexit uncertainty, light-fingered middlemen, and a pumped-up price tag soon led, according to a spokesperson, to “substantial losses for the Vatican”—all the while enriching a handful of chummy brokers in the process. In order to get to the bottom of the debacle, the Holy See’s own in-house police raided the offices of the secretariat in 2019 and seized computers and financial documents—and in doing so dragged a cornucopia of equally questionable financial maneuvers out into the blinking light of day.

The case, which is riddled with sexual intrigue, greed, betrayal, and vice, seems to be the final straw for a frustrated Pope Francis.

(In an eerie twist that will send conspiracy theorists into spasms, it just so happens that 60 Sloane Avenue sits right across the street from Chelsea Cloisters—the seedy Art Deco block of apartments dubbed “10 Floors of Whores” by The Sunday Times. This building was the final lodging place of notorious Vatican financier Roberto Calvi—often called “God’s Banker”—before he was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in 1982: a grisly unsolved murder case that has dogged the Church for decades.)

In the dock alongside nine other defendants—dubbed, in the 487-page indictment, “actors in a rotten, predatory and lucrative system”—Becciu will now be quizzed on the cascade of colorful transactions made during his tenure at the Secretariat, from 2011 to 2018.

There’s the alleged siphoning of millions of dollars to his three brothers from global church donations meant to help the poor. (In the end, a big chunk of them simply helped to buy Becciu’s niece a new house in Rome.) The mind-boggling 5,251 properties owned by the Vatican from London to Paris to Geneva. (At one of these, on Chelsea’s gilded Hans Place, the residents have complained of “hellish noise” and wild parties at all hours of the night.) The disastrous punt on the credit-worthiness of Hertz, the car-rental giant that filed for bankruptcy in May of last year. And the baffling investment in the Elton John biopic, Rocketman—an odd move, as the singer himself pointed out, given that it was the first major studio film to explicitly show a gay-male sex scene on-screen.

Cecilia Marogna is accused of taking donations intended for humanitarian missions and spending them instead on luxury clothes, shoes, and furniture.

But spiciest of all is Becciu’s financial and personal relationship with one Cecilia Marogna, a Sardinian femme fatale whom the Italian tabloids dubbed “Mata Hari”—after the Dutch exotic dancer who was convicted of spying for Germany during World War I. Marogna was reportedly introduced around the Vatican as the cardinal’s “niece,” and apparently hired as his security consultant and back-channel fixer.

Becciu—who as the deputy at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State acted as its unofficial head of investments—had in 2014 initially parked more than $200 million into 60 Sloane Avenue.

But the prosecution now alleges that Marogna embezzled some $600,000 in Church funds that had been allocated to help missionaries in conflict zones. It also claims that almost half of this cash was used to buy designer handbags and shoes—though Marogna has insisted that these were necessary for her to perform her duties and denies she misused any funds.

Rumors abound, meanwhile, about the 40-year-old Sardinian’s alleged romantic involvement with the cardinal, with particular emphasis on an overnight stay at his London apartment in September of last year. (“I, the lover of a cardinal?” she protested following her arrest. “Absurd.”) Finally, in a bombshell television interview, Marogna raised eyebrows when she alleged that her work for the Vatican had also involved compiling dirty dossiers on powerful individuals that could be used to shame and coerce them.

Raffaele Mincione, Heather Mills’s former fiancé, who has taken the Vatican to the High Court.

All in all, it’s not a good look. Becciu vehemently denies any wrongdoing. “I am the victim of a plot,” he said in a recent statement. “I have been waiting for a long time … to prove to the world my absolute innocence.” But if we’re to judge a man by the company he keeps, the cardinal may well be a bounder of the first water.

His fellow defendants and alleged co-conspirators include Raffaele Mincione—a fast-living banker best known to the British tabloids for dating Paul McCartney’s ex-wife Heather Mills after reportedly meeting her in a strip club—and Fabrizio Tirabassi, a Vatican accountant accused of offering a prostitute to a businessman as part of the London property deal, and who was found to have shoeboxes stuffed with cash and stacks of Swiss bank records in his two homes.

For many years, Becciu oversaw the Vatican’s canonization and beatification programs—an all-powerful figure, close to God, who could identify and create a saint. Judging by the first act of this blockbuster trial, however, His Eminence appears to have a much finer nose for a sinner.

Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL