ROME – A powerful Vatican cardinal who was sacked by Pope Francis in an astonishing twist to the Vatican's latest financial scandal pushed back Friday against allegations he embezzled Holy See money and denied he did anything wrong.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu presided over an extraordinary news conference a day after Francis fired him and yanked his rights and privileges as a cardinal. The 72-year-old Becciu, a onetime papal contender, said his downfall was “surreal,” but that he had a clear conscience, remained loyal to Francis and was ready to die for him.
Becciu said Francis had asked him to step down as prefect of the Vatican’s saint-making office during a “troubled” 20-minute meeting Thursday evening in which the pope said he “no longer had confidence in me.”
Becciu had gone to the pope’s residence for a previously scheduled meeting to go over possible sainthood candidates when the pope told him that documents from the Italian financial police alleged he had embezzled 100,000 euros of Holy See money and sent it to a charitable fund run by his brother.
The cardinal's name had previously been caught up in a whirlwind financial scandal involving the Holy See's investment in a London real estate venture. But Becciu said the London investment didn't even come up Thursday; instead, he said the issue that forced his removal was the allegation of embezzlement, which was first reported by the L'Espresso news magazine Friday.
Becciu, the former No. 2 in the Vatican’s secretariat of state, admitted he sent the money from the office's asset fund in 2017 to his home diocese in Ozieri, Sardinia, for its charitable work. Becciu’s brother, Tonino Becciu, is the legal representative of the diocese's operational charitable arm, Spes Cooperative.
But the bishop of Ozieri, Corrado Melis, issued a statement Friday saying the money was never used and remains in the diocesan coffers for a future project. And the Becciu family said in its own statement that Spes never saw a dime of the money.
Becciu said such donations were fully in line with directives that the secretariat of state’s off-the-books fund be destined toward charity, and that it was the only time in his seven years that he had approved a donation for his native Sardinia.
“Certainly, one could say it would have been better if I hadn't given it. But I wanted to help the diocese, not my brother, and that 100,000 euros was for the diocese."
Becciu said he also recommended the Italian bishops’ conference donate 300,000 euros to the same charitable fund years earlier to help set it up, but insisted that too was legitimate because it was the conference’s decision to do so. The cooperative is a non-profit that runs a bakery and some vineyards that Becciu said employs around 60 young people who otherwise wouldn't have jobs.
“I don’t think I’ve committed any crime,” Becciu said during the news conference, sitting in front of a giant silver crucifix in a religious institute just off St. Peter's Square.
Becciu, long considered a possible papal contender himself, said in giving up his rights as a cardinal he obviously could not vote in a conclave to elect a new pope. But he acknowledged that he can now also be judged by others, including Vatican magistrates, and not just the pope since he no longer had a cardinal's privileges.
“If they want me to clarify, I’ll clarify,” Becciu said of Vatican prosecutors. “I’m a citizen like everyone else, and if they call me, I’m ready."
In its report, L'Espresso also reported other allegations of conflicts of interest involving Becciu and his brothers: That when he was ambassador to Angola and Cuba, his brother did carpentry work for the Vatican's embassies, and that he also promoted another brother's beer business.
Becciu denied having anything to do with the beer business. But his response was also an indication of a general acceptance in the Italian-dominated Holy See of favors and displays of nepotism that are anathema to many Anglo-Saxon corporate cultures, where even the appearance of such conflicts are forbidden.
Becciu admitted he gave work to his carpenter brother when he was renovating the embassies, but justified it saying the Vatican secretariat of state had approved the work and that in Cuba at least, it was impossible to obtain building materials locally.
“What was I supposed to do, go around Italy calling up carpenters to avoid let's say a conflict of interest?" he asked.
Becciu was long known to have clashed with Francis' first economic czar, Cardinal George Pell, who was brought in to reform the Vatican's opaque finances and impose international accounting standards across the Curia, or bureaucracy.
Pell greatly irritated the Vatican's old guard, Becciu included, and he issued a statement Friday congratulating Francis for finally taking action.
“He plays a long game and is to be thanked and congratulated on recent developments," Pell said in the statement. “I hope the cleaning of the stables continues in both the Vatican and Victoria."
Asked about Pell's statement, Becciu readily admitted the two had professional differences. He recalled that he lost his temper when Pell accused him once in a meeting of being “dishonest."
But Becciu said when Pell left the Vatican to face trial in his native Australia for historic sexual abuse charges for which he was eventually absolved, Becciu sent him a handwritten note expressing his solidarity and assurances of his innocence.
“If he still considers me corrupt, there's nothing I can do," Becciu said. “My conscience tells me I'm not corrupt."
Despite his bitterness, Becciu said he remained loyal to the pope and pledged again his obedience even to the point of death.
“I promised him loyalty until the end, and when I became a cardinal I promised I'd give my life for the church and the pope," he said. “I will never betray him."