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Testimony at Vatican trial shows cardinal had hands-on role

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, center, former Vatican secretary of state, talks with his successor, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, before the arrival of Pope Francis to lead the traditional Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia in December. (Credit: CNS/Reuters pool.)

Italian businessman Gianantonio Bandera told a Vatican court on Monday that Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the former Secretary of State under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, played a hands-on role in making the arrangements for remodeling his Vatican apartment that ultimately led to criminal charges. Bertone is not charged in the case, and was never considered a suspect.

ROME – While there are still many unanswered questions hanging around a Vatican criminal trial for financial misappropriation, one point seems increasingly clear from testimony heard so far by a three-judge panel: Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, despite never being charged or even considered a suspect, nonetheless was intimately involved in crafting the deals at the heart of the case.

On Monday, the judges heard from Gianantonio Bandera, an Italian businessman whose now-bankrupt construction company was personally selected by Bertone, the former Secretary of State under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, to carry out remodeling work on Bertone’s roughly 4,200-square foot Vatican apartment.

(In fact, the apartment does not belong personally to Bertone but to the Vatican, and presumably will be inhabited by other Vatican officials in the future.)

The two defendants in the case, Giuseppe Profiti and Massimo Spina, are former officials of Rome’s Bambino Gesù Hospital, a papally-sponsored pediatric facility. They’re accused of violating the statutes of a foundation governing the hospital when they used roughly $500,000 of its funds to pay for upgrades to the apartment in the Vatican’s Palazzo San Carlo, which was assigned to Bertone in 2013 after he was replaced by Pope Francis as the Secretary of State.

From the beginning, Profiti has insisted there was nothing wrong with the expense, since it was designed to create a space for receptions and events in the apartment that the foundation planned to use for fundraising purposes.

Part of the indictment is that Profiti and Spina diverted the money to help Bandera, whose companies at the time were struggling financially. Bandera said Monday that he’d first met Bertone in 1991 or 1992, when the future Secretary of State was the bishop of Vercelli in northern Italy.

Bandera’s testimony suggested Bertone had a hands-on role in making the arrangements between Profiti and himself.

Bandera told judges that Profiti called him in the first part of September 2013, saying he’d spoken with Bertone and that the cardinal would be in touch. Bertone later called, he said, and they arranged a meeting, at which time Bertone told him he wanted Bandera’s company to carry out the work.

“He wanted a very normal residence, with average accommodations,” Bandera said, in testimony that lasted more than four hours, though Bandera also said that Bertone’s private salon in the apartment is “a bit larger than normal.” Bandera also said he volunteered to build a discount into the costs.

On Sept. 22, the judges heard from an official of the Government of the Vatican City State, which normally handles construction projects on Vatican territory, that such personal involvement by a cardinal in selecting a firm was “anomalous.”

RELATED: In Vatican trial, witness calls spending on cardinal’s apartment ‘anomalous’

Marco Bargellini, a layman who’s responsible for building projects within the Government of the Vatican City State, said that normally, projects costing more than 50,000 Euro require a competitive bidding process with at least three qualified firms involved, with their bids registered. In this case, Bargellini said, Bertone deposited the plans for the remodeling, and wrote directly to his fellow Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, head of the government of the city-state, informing him who would be carrying out the project.

Asked on Monday why he thought it was the Bambino Gesù foundation and not the Government of the Vatican City-State apparently coordinating the work, Bandera said “I never asked myself that question,” and said his impression was that Bertone was personally keeping the government informed about the work, which was being overseen by a religious sister who’s part of his household.

Bandera also said he never really had a formal contract for the work on Bertone’s apartment, but rather simply “an exchange of emails.”

As Bandera described it, his company was largely responsible for the work inside Bertone’s apartment, while the Government of the Vatican City-State was responsible for the exterior, including a spacious terrace and solar panels on the roof, and also the common areas of the building. However, he said, the government did make some requests about the interior that ended up increasing costs, such as asking that plans for heating using vents in the floor be abandoned in favor of the traditional Italian custom of radiators on the wall.

Although it’s been widely reported that Bandera’s firm double-billed both the foundation and the government for the same work, which was never actually finished, Bandera insisted that didn’t happen on his watch. As of April 2014, Bandera said, he was no longer in charge of the company, which by then was in receivership as part of bankruptcy proceedings.

In other rulings on Monday, the judges gave the Government of the Vatican State until noon Rome time on Wednesday to produce all orders and contracts relative to the remodeling of Bertone’s apartment. In response to a defense request, they also agreed to hear oral testimony from two witnesses who had requested not to appear in court.

One is Mariella Enoc, the current president of Bambino Gesù, who asked to be exempted from appearing because she’s already deposited written testimony. The other is Tommaso Di Ruzza, the director of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority. The president of that body, Swiss anti-money laundering expert René Brülhart, had written to the judges asking that Di Ruzza not be compelled to appear “for intelligence reasons.”

With regard to Enoc’s request to be excused, a defense attorney provided one of the few light moments on Monday when he joked that perhaps she was unaware that an old provision of Vatican criminal procedure prohibiting women from being witnesses at trial had been abrogated in 1877.

Barring the unforeseen, Enoc and Di Ruzza should be the final two witnesses to be heard by the court, suggesting that it could be moving to a verdict soon. If convicted, Profiti and Spina face between three and five years in prison and fines starting at 50,000 Euro.

In many quarters, the trial is seen as an x-ray of where things stand on Francis’s effort to promote a sweeping reform of Vatican finances in the direction of accountability and transparency. Most of the critical questions on that front focus on why Bertone has been insulated from liability, while two laymen involved are being prosecuted aggressively.

RELATED: In Vatican trial, question remains: Whose reputations are on the line?

It’s especially important to the Vatican to show progress, since in December they face an interim evaluation by Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency. The last time Moneyval carried out a review, the agency applauded tough new laws on financial crime adopted by Francis, but said it wanted to see those laws enforced.

Getting a clean bill of health from Moneyval is key to ending up on global “white lists” of virtuous financial actors, which means reduced transaction costs related to perceived risks, less danger of accounts being frozen, and greater access to financial markets.