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A Landmark Fraud And Corruption Trial Opens At The Vatican

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

A landmark fraud and corruption trial opened at the Vatican yesterday. The 10 defendants range from Italian financiers to former Vatican officials, including a cardinal - a first in modern history. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the trial is a key part of Pope Francis' campaign for greater transparency in the Holy See's financial affairs after decades of secrecy and scandals.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The case before the Court of Vatican Civil Magistrates involves a botched real estate deal in London that cost the Vatican tens of millions of dollars in losses. Much of the $415 million the Vatican paid for the property came from charity funds known as Peter's Pence that popes earmark for the poor and ill. The charges include embezzlement, abuse of office, money laundering and fraud. And the 10 defendants face prison sentences, fines, or both if convicted. Vatican watchers say the trial is unprecedented.

ROBERT MICKENS: First of all, what it says is that nobody is untouchable, not even a cardinal.

POGGIOLI: Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of La Croix International. He says Pope Francis is sending a clear signal.

MICKENS: That he's serious about cleaning up abuse, financial abuse, financial corruption, any type of corruption inside the Vatican - that even a cardinal can go on trial.

POGGIOLI: That cardinal is Angelo Becciu, once the No. 3 person in the Vatican. Last year, Pope Francis fired him from his post and required him to renounce all privileges of being a cardinal, including taking part in a conclave to elect the next pope. Becciu and his former secretary, also a defendant, were the only ones who appeared in court Tuesday. Wearing a black clergyman suit, Becciu told reporters, the pope wanted me to go on trial. I am obedient. I am here. The other defendants exercised their right to be defended in absentia.

The trial's first day was long - almost eight hours - and it was taken up by procedural issues, with the 27 lawyers representing the defense raising numerous objections. Gerald O’Connell, the Vatican correspondent for the Jesuit Weekly America, was in the pool of reporters inside the courtroom. He said there was a distinct legal communication gap, with defense lawyers repeatedly citing Italian legislation and precedents.

GERALD O’CONNELL: What the Vatican prosecutors brought out was that the Italian legislation is not the same as the Vatican legislation, and the Vatican legislation has to be interpreted also in terms of the code of canon law.

POGGIOLI: Canon law is legislation specific to the Catholic Church. O’Connell said the defense also questioned the validity of recent rulings issued by Pope Francis, such as lifting Cardinal Becciu's immunity so he could stand trial.

O’CONNELL: And the Vatican prosecutor said no. The pope is the chief legislator. And what he has introduced is changes in the law.

POGGIOLI: Pope Francis also issued other rulings to ensure a thorough investigation before the trial opened, such as allowing prosecutors to authorize wiretaps of suspects. But Mickens of La Croix raises a different and delicate issue facing the magistrates.

MICKENS: How will now the court officials, the magistrates in this monarchy, which is the Holy See, which is the Vatican - are they liable to say no, the man's not guilty after the pope has already pretty much sentenced him? That's a big question.

POGGIOLI: At the end of Tuesday's hearing, the trial was adjourned to October 5. And it's expected to last for many, many months.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.