Pope OK would spend €1m to free kidnapped nun, cardinal says

VATICAN CITY >> Pope Francis has authorized spending up to 1 million euros to free a Colombian nun kidnapped by al-Qaeda-linked militants in Mali, a cardinal testified Thursday, revealing the previously secret papal approval to hire a British security company to find the nun and ensure her freedom.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu’s explosive testimony could have serious security implications for the Vatican and the Catholic Church, as it provided evidence that the pope was apparently willing to pay a ransom to Islamic militants to free a nun, who was finally fired last year.

A ransom payment is rarely, if ever, confirmed, precisely to deter future kidnappings, and it is unclear how much – if any Vatican money – ultimately ended up in the hands of the militants. . Prosecutors charged a co-defendant of Becciu with embezzling about half the amount of high-end luxury items for herself.

Becciu, who was once a top adviser to Francis as No. 2 in the Vatican Secretariat of State, had withheld his testimony in Vatican court for nearly two years as a state and papal secret. . But he spoke freely on Thursday in his own defense after Francis released him from the confidentiality requirement, providing the most anticipated testimony in the year-long trial to date.

Becciu is one of 10 people charged in the Vatican’s sweeping financial fraud trial, which originated in the Holy See’s €350m investment in a London property and has spread to cover other alleged crimes. Prosecutors charged the defendants with a host of crimes for allegedly robbing the Holy See of millions of euros in fees, commissions and bad investments.

Becciu, the only cardinal on trial, is accused of embezzlement, abuse of power and tampering with witnesses, which he denies. On Thursday, his testimony focused on accusations about his relationship with an alleged Italian intelligence specialist, Cecilia Marogna.

Marogna told Italian media that she helped negotiate the release of Catholic hostages in Africa on behalf of the Holy See. Vatican prosecutors accuse him of embezzling 575 million euros, citing bank statements from his Slovenian holding company that show nine wire transfers from the Vatican in 2018-2019 for unspecified humanitarian purposes, and spending on the account of Prada, Luis Vuitton and luxury hotels. Marogna said the transfers were expense reimbursements and compensation for his services.

Becciu testified Thursday that he hired Marogna as an external security consultant, impressed with her understanding of geopolitical affairs and the trust she enjoyed from two of Italy’s top secret service officials, Generals Luciano Carta and Gianni Caravelli, who accompanied her to a meeting with Becciu at the Vatican in October 2017.

Becciu said he turned to Marogna for help after the February 2017 kidnapping of a Colombian nun, Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez, in Mali. She had been kidnapped by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which financed its insurgency by kidnapping Westerners. During his captivity, the group periodically showed Narvaez on video asking for help from the Vatican.

Becciu said he heard the Vatican’s nuncio in Colombia as well as other sisters in the nun’s religious order asking for help. He said he took the matter to Francis as well as to Marogna, who he said advised him to work with a British intelligence firm, The Inkerman Group, to secure the nun’s release.

Becciu testified that Francis authorized him to proceed with Operation Inkerman and forbade him from telling anyone about it, including the Vatican’s own police chief. Francis was concerned about the security and reputational implications if the news leaked, Becciu said.

Becciu said he and Marogna met with Inkerman officials at their London office in mid-January 2018.

Inkerman officials said there were no guarantees of success and total expenses could reach 1 million euros, Becciu said. Because the Vatican wanted to remain outside any operation, Marogna became the key intermediary and the one who received periodic payments from the Vatican Secretariat of State for the operation, Becciu testified.

Becciu said he provided Francis with a preliminary oral reading of the London meeting on January 15, 2018, while the pope was on his way to Peru.

“He listened to me and confirmed my intention to continue,” Becciu said. “At a later meeting with the Holy Father, once in Rome, I spoke to him in more detail about the conversation we had with the Inkermans and the sum that we should have roughly estimated: approximately 1 million euros, part to pay for the creation of a network of contacts, and part for the effective release of the nun.

“I pointed out that we shouldn’t have exceeded that number. He approved. I must say that every step of this operation was agreed with the Holy Father,” Becciu testified.

Narvaez was released in October 2021, after more than four years in captivity. Shortly after, she met Francis at the Vatican.

Vatican prosecutors say they have evidence that the Secretariat of State, in addition to the transfer of 575,000 euros sent to Marogna’s Slovenian accounts, sent an equivalent amount directly to a British bank account held by Inkerman.

Becciu also responded to complaints against him over Cardinal George Pell, who left his post as Vatican financial czar in 2017 to face historic charges of sexual abuse in his native Australia, for which he was ultimately acquitted. Pell clashed with Becciu several times during his time at the Vatican and repeated Italian media claims that Becciu had approved Vatican money transfers to Australia which in some way contributed to the sexual abuse charges against him.

Becciu produced two letters on Thursday to refute the claims: one from the current Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, explaining that the 1.46 million euros that was wired to Australia was to pay for a name of “.catholic” domain. And the other, a September 11, 2015 letter authorizing the expense, signed by none other than Pell.

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