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The Vatican Is Holding Its Biggest Criminal Trial In Modern History

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

An unprecedented trial began in Italy today, specifically at the Vatican. One of the defendants is a cardinal. He and nine others are accused of misusing over $400 million in church funds. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is following things from Rome and joins us on the line now.

Hey, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So tell us more about this case. This is highly unusual.

POGGIOLI: Yeah, it's really complicated. It involves a botched real estate deal in London where the Vatican ended up losing tens of millions of dollars. It was a warehouse that was to be converted in luxury apartments. Most of the money came from charity funds known as Peter's Pence that popes usually earmark for the poor. Now, the defendants include Italian financiers, former Vatican financial officials.

And the key defendant is Cardinal Angelo Bachu. He was once the No. 3 person in the Vatican. He's accused of crimes including embezzlement, abuse of office, money laundering and fraud. And he denies all wrongdoing. Today he and his former secretary, who was also a defendant, were the only ones who appeared in court. Bachu, who was wearing a black clergyman suit, told reporters, the pope wanted me to go on trial. I'm obedient. I'm here. But the other defendants all exercise their right to be defended in absentia.

CHANG: So interesting. Well, tell us what happened today in court.

POGGIOLI: Well, it was a really long hearing, almost eight hours. Twenty-seven lawyers representing the 10 defendants raised numerous objections. Some claim the Vatican court doesn't have jurisdiction over certain crimes, or they complained that they hadn't seen all the evidence or had been given sufficient time to study at all. It's some 28,000 pages.

Now, what struck me was a kind of legal miscommunication between the defense and the Vatican prosecutors. The defense lawyers were citing Italian legal precedents that have nothing to do with the Vatican legal system. One lawyer, for example, claimed that recent decisions handed down by Pope Francis, which made this trial possible, such as lifting the cardinal's immunity so he could stand trial, have made this according to a so-called sort of special tribunal you might see in an authoritarian regime. The prosecutors responded saying, hey; the Vatican is a separate state. It has a different legal system, and the pope himself is its legislator. So the trial was adjourned to October 5. It's likely to go on for a very long time - many, many months, I'm sure.

CHANG: Many, many months. Now, Sylvia, I mean, there have been allegations of malfeasance for years regarding the Catholic Church. Do you think that this trial is a sign that they're finally getting quite serious about cracking down on that malfeasance?

POGGIOLI: Well, that's what Vatican officials say. This marks a turning point for greater credibility in the Holy See's affairs. The fact that a cardinal is on trial for corruption for the first time in, you know, modern history is a sign that nobody's beyond the law. Nobody's untouchable. Pope Francis is definitely determined to clean up Vatican finances after decades of many, many scandals. And the head of the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy said, in economics, we have learned that transparency protects us more than secrecy does.

But there's another issue, and that's Pope Francis' the handling of the whole affair. Last September Francis fired the cardinal from his post and required him to renounce all privileges of being a cardinal. And some here wonder, how will the court judge him? Is an acquittal likely after the pope himself has pretty much handed down a guilty verdict?

CHANG: That is NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

Thank you so much, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK RONSON AND THE BUSINESS INTL'S "SELECTOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.