Vatican magistrates on Tuesday postponed an historic trial over alleged financial fraud relating to Catholic charity funds, giving the defence until October to prepare for the complex case.
The opening day of the trial followed a two-year probe that has implicated a once-powerful cardinal and exposed an opaque Vatican property deal that resulted in millions of euros in losses for the Holy See.
Vatican prosecutors allege that ten defendants, including former top cardinal Angelo Becciu, together with high-rolling London-based financiers and other church employees, engaged in various crimes such as embezzlement, fraud, and corruption.
Three magistrates sat underneath a crucifix in a temporary courtroom within the Vatican Museums, where a photograph of a smiling Pope Francis looked down on rows of lawyers representing the defendants, only two of whom were present at the procedural hearing.
Becciu, wearing his priest’s collar and a large silver cross around his neck, sat across the courtroom from his former secretary, Monsignor Mauro Carlino, also accused in the case.
Becciu, 73, who says he is the victim of a plot, is the highest-profile defendant embroiled in the church's ruinous purchase of a 17,000-square-metre (18,000-square-foot) London property while he was number two at the powerful Secretariat of State.
The case against Becciu, which carries charges of embezzlement, abuse of office and witness tampering, also includes separate allegations over hundreds of thousands of euros of church funds paid to his brother's charity.
The former right-hand man to Francis was fired by the pontiff in September.
In a statement Tuesday a defiant Becciu said there was ample proof that would show he was innocent "with respect to every charge".
The trial is unprecedented as it is going before a Vatican tribunal of three lay magistrates rather than a religious court, after Francis changed the law to stop cardinals and bishops enjoying legal privileges.
Had he not, Becciu would have been judged by a higher court presided over by cardinals.
- Bags of money -
Prosecutors paint a picture of risky investments with little or no oversight, and double-dealing by outside consultants and insiders trusted with the financial interests of the Secretariat of State, the Vatican's most important department charged with general affairs and diplomacy.
A 487-page indictment sheds light on hefty bank transfers, text messages between collaborators -- even bags of money changing hands and secret meetings in luxury hotels.
The primary defendants are "actors in a rotten predatory and lucrative system, sometimes made possible thanks to limited, but very incisive, complicity and internal connivance," wrote prosecutors.
Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has vowed to clean up the church's finances.
The scandal is particularly embarrassing because funds used for risky ventures like the London one came from the Peter's Pence, money donated by churchgoers for the pope's charities.
- Risky ventures -
The current case dates from 2013, when the Secretariat borrowed more than $200 million, mainly from Credit Suisse, to invest in a Luxembourg fund managed by an Italian-Swiss businessman, Raffaele Mincione. Half was intended for stock market purchases and the rest for part of the building in London's tony Sloane Avenue.
Mincione, prosecutors allege, used the money to invest in high-risk ventures over which the Church had no control. By 2018, the Secretariat had already lost millions and tried to pull out of the deal.
But another London-based financier, Gianluigi Torzi, brought in to broker the purchase of the rest of the building and cut ties with Mincione, instead joined forces with him, say prosecutors.
Torzi then allegedly inserted a clause into the deal that gave himself control of the building through voting rights. He is accused of demanding 15 million euros to relinquish control.
Mincione and Torzi were helped, prosecutors claim, by Enrico Crasso, a former financial consultant to the Secretariat, and employee Fabrizio Tirabassi, both of whom face charges including fraud.
Also implicated are two former top officials within the Vatican's financial regulator, including its ex-president, Swiss lawyer Rene Bruelhart, whom prosecutors say did not do enough to protect the Secretariat's interests.
The next trial date was set for October 5.