FILE – In this Jan. 11, 2014 file photo, Vatican Gendarmes, background, take position prior to the start of a ceremony for the opening of the Vatican judicial year, outside the Vatican’s Court Palace. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file)
ROME — The Vatican on Monday abruptly abandoned its extradition request for an Italian woman wanted on embezzlement-related charges in a case that had been set to test whether Italy considers the Vatican a state where someone can get a fair trial.
At the hearing in a Milan court, the Vatican said it no longer was seeking to detain Cecilia Marogna, thereby removing any reason to proceed with an evaluation of her extradition. A statement from the Vatican tribunal said its decision would allow her to participate freely in an “imminent” trial in the city state.
However, the maneuver seemed more aimed at avoiding the embarrassing specter that the Milan court could have ruled against Vatican prosecutors, given there is no extradition treaty between the two states. Marogna’s lawyers could have also argued that without such a treaty, Italian law bars sending citizens to a country where their “fundamental right” to a fair trial isn’t guaranteed.
Already two Italian courts have ruled against Vatican prosecutors in the Marogna case and a broader Vatican corruption investigation, exposing how the Vatican’s judicial system is inconsistent with European norms.
Italian lawyers who have defended clients before the Vatican tribunal say its procedures are outdated, don’t provide adequate rights for the accused and are subject to arbitrary interference by the pope, who as absolute monarch exercises exclusive legislative, executive and judicial power.
In the broader corruption investigation, for example, Pope Francis authorized a procedure that precludes oversight of prosecutors by an independent judge during the investigative phase. There is also no chance for the defense to contest testimony obtained during the investigation or evidence seized during searches, as would be required in Italy.
“Any element that is acquired by the prosecutors’ office during the preliminary investigation constitutes a proof” to be used at trial, said Laura Sgro, who has defended clients before the tribunal but isn’t involved in this case. “It is absolutely harmful to the defense.”
Vatican prosecutors insist the rights of the accused are safeguarded, and that the pope had to order the “summary rite” in this case because of a technicality owing to the old legal code in use.
In the spinoff case involving extradition, Vatican prosecutors have accused Marogna of embezzlement and misappropriation of Holy See funds. They say she was paid at least 575,000 euros by the Vatican secretariat of state from 2018-2019 to help liberate Catholic hostages, but that the money was used instead to buy Prada, Chanel and other high-end luxury goods.
Marogna told Italian media the money wired to her Slovenian-based Logsic company was for compensation and reimbursements for expenses she incurred doing her security work for the Holy See. She acknowledged, though, that some purchases, such as a designer pocketbook, were “maybe for the wife of a Nigerian friend who was in a position to talk to the president of Burkina Faso.”
Italian police arrested Marogna in Milan on Oct. 13 based on an international warrant issued by the Vatican via Interpol. She was jailed for two weeks before an Italian court ordered her freed. Recently, Italy’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, declared she never should have been arrested before a court evaluated whether she could be extradited.
The Cassation ruling was not the first blow to Vatican prosecutors, however. Recently, a Rome court declared a Vatican-ordered search of a Rome apartment illegal given that Vatican prosecutors circumvented required steps.
The Court of Review found that Vatican prosecutors had bypassed the Italian Justice Ministry in amending their search warrant, emailing Italian prosecutors directly to ask Italian police to seize money, gold coins and other goods from the home of Onofrio Tirabassi, father of one of the suspects in the Vatican investigation. The father is not a suspect.
The Court of Review declared that the seizure request was “radically null and illegitimate” because it deprived the Justice Ministry the chance to evaluate it, and ordered the money returned to the father.
The Italian Justice Ministry declined to comment.
The Marogna investigation is a spinoff of the main Vatican probe into the secretariat of state’s 350 million-euro investment into a London real estate venture, some of it funded by donations to the pope from the faithful.
The Marogna case involves other questionable decisions by secretariat of state officials. Marogna has said she reached out to the office’s then-No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, in 2015 with concerns about security for Vatican embassies in hot spots, and was quickly brought into Becciu’s inner circle.
According to text messages reported by Vatican prosecutors in their extradition request, Becciu on Dec. 20, 2018, authorized one of his former deputies to wire Marogna’s Logsic firm 75,000 euros “because it seems something is starting to move” in the case of a kidnapped Colombian nun. Another message said the pope himself was aware of the development and wanted everything kept “in great secrecy.” Four other payments were made to Logsic from January-July 2019.
Francis fired Becciu on Sept. 24 for what Becciu said were unrelated embezzlement allegations that he denied. Becciu has said all his relations with Marogna were “exclusively for institutional matters.”