VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis authorized spending up to 1 million euros to free a Colombian nun kidnapped by al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali, a cardinal testified Thursday, revealing previously secret papal approval to hire a British security firm to find the nun and secure her freedom.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu’s bombshell testimony could pose serious security implications for the Vatican and Catholic Church, since he provided evidence that the pope was apparently willing to pay ransom to Islamic militants to free a nun, who was eventually let go last year.
Ransom payment are rarely if ever confirmed, precisely to dissuade future kidnappings, and it’s not known how much — if any Vatican money — actually ended up in the hands of the militants. Prosecutors have accused a Becciu co-defendant of embezzling around half the amount on high-end luxury items for herself.
Becciu, who was once one of Francis’ top advisers as the No. 2 in the Vatican secretariat of state, had withheld his testimony from the Vatican tribunal for nearly two years as a matter of state and pontifical secret. But he spoke freely Thursday in his own defense after Francis released him from the confidentiality requirement, providing the most anticipated testimony of the yearlong trial to date.
Becciu is one of 10 people accused in the Vatican’s sprawling financial fraud trial, which originated in the Holy See’s 350 million euro investment in a London property and expanded to cover other alleged crimes. Prosecutors have accused the defendants of a host of crimes for allegedly fleecing the Holy See of millions of euros in fees, commissions and bad investments.
Becciu, the lone cardinal on trial, is accused of embezzlement, abuse of office and witness tampering, all of which he denies. On Thursday, his testimony covered the charges concerning his relationship with an Italian self-styled intelligence specialist, Cecilia Marogna.
Marogna has told Italian media that she helped negotiate the release of Catholic hostages in Africa on behalf of the Holy See. Vatican prosecutors accuse her of embezzling 575 million euros, citing bank records from her Slovenian holding company that show nine wire transfers from the Vatican in 2018-2019 for unspecified humanitarian ends, and expenditures out of the account at Prada, Luis Vuitton and fancy hotels. Marogna has said the transfers were reimbursements for expenditures and compensation for her services.
Becciu testified Thursday that he hired Marogna as an external security consultant, impressed by her grasp of geopolitical affairs and the trust she enjoyed of two of Italy’s top secret service officials, Generals Luciano Carta and Gianni Caravelli, who accompanied her to a meeting with Becciu in the Vatican in October 2017.