'Holy oil': Trial sheds new light on proposed Vatican investment
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican recently marked the seventh anniversary of Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," which called on world leaders and governments to seek new ways to curb the climate crisis, including by finding less polluting forms of energy.
Yet, according to one of the 10 defendants at a Vatican trial focused on financial malfeasance, Vatican officials considered investing millions of dollars in an offshore oil platform in Angola around the time the pope was drafting the encyclical.
Under cross-examination May 20, Fabrizio Tirabassi, a former official at the Secretariat of State accused of corruption, extortion, embezzlement, fraud and abuse of office, said he had been "amazed" that the Vatican would even consider investing in the oil platform.
"'Laudato Si'' speaks of the exploitation of natural resources as something to avoid," Tirabassi told the court. "It was a difficult thing to support. I was amazed at the similar timing of this oil investment in Angola with the release of the pope's encyclical."
Although the Vatican ultimately decided against making the risky investment, Tirabassi's testimony shed new light on the proposed deal that took officials over a year to mull over before rejecting it.
Instead, the Vatican Secretariat of State decided to invest its funds in a property development project in London's Chelsea district that resulted in the loss of hundreds of millions of euros.
Even before the pope's landmark encyclical was released, popes and other church leaders had taken a stand against promoting energy resources that are detrimental to the environment.
In his 2010 message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict XVI wrote of the "need to encourage research into, and utilization of, forms of energy with lower impact on the environment."
Pope Francis further emphasized the point in his 2015 encyclical and cited the need for "highly polluting fossil fuels," such as coal, gas and oil, to be "progressively replaced without delay."
Nevertheless, the Vatican trial brought new insight into the oil investment proposal that, if accepted, would have contradicted that teaching.
According to Tirabassi, the investment was first considered at the end of 2012 when Antonio Mosquito, owner of Angolan oil company Falcon Oil, contacted the Vatican Secretariat of State to propose a $200 million investment in an oil platform.
Mosquito, he said, met with then-Archbishop Angelo Becciu, who served as "sostituto," the No. 3 position in the secretariat. The two first met years earlier when the Italian prelate was serving as apostolic nuncio to Angola.
Now-Cardinal Becciu is among the defendants at the trial and is facing charges of embezzlement, abuse of office and witness tampering.
Tirabassi said that Cardinal Becciu asked Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, the former head of the Vatican Secretariat of State's administrative office, to evaluate Mosquito's proposal.
Msgr. Perlasca, who is the Vatican prosecution's primary witness at the trial, called Enrico Crasso, a longtime investment manager who is also accused by the Vatican of embezzlement and money laundering.
Representatives of Credit Suisse, an investment bank used by the Vatican, recommended that Crasso consult with London-based Italian financier Raffaele Mincione.
Mincione, the owner of the London property at the heart of the Vatican trial, was asked in 2012 to perform due diligence on the Angolan oil investment. According to Tirabassi, the Vatican paid $500,000 for Mincione's work, which took over a year to conduct.
At the trial, Vatican deputy prosecutor Alessandro Diddi asked Tirabassi about the conclusions of Mincione's study.
"There were various problems," Tirabassi answered. "In short, it was a somewhat risky investment, above all for the environment and consequently, for (the Vatican's) reputation due to the fact that oil extraction meant damage to the environment in the area."
"And it took a year-and-a-half to arrive at this conclusion? It couldn't have been understood right away?" Diddi asked. Tirabassi said he was perplexed that the proposal was even being considered given the fact that it was studied while "Laudato Si'" was being drafted.
But, he added, "it wasn't my job to criticize what my superiors were discussing."
Yet, Tirabassi said emphasis was placed on Mincione's conclusion that the investment in an oil platform would not be profitable. Had there been certain guarantees on the investment's profitability, he said, the proposal "would have most likely been presented to the pope" for approval.
However, Crasso, who testified May 30, told the Vatican court that he blocked the proposed oil investment, which he deemed too risky.
After declining the investment in Angola, the Vatican Secretariat of State invested in Mincione's London property which led to the loss of more than 200 million euros. Mincione is now accused by the Vatican of embezzlement, fraud, abuse of office, misappropriation of funds and money laundering.
Tirabassi's testimony on the failed oil investment also provided a better understanding of Pope Francis' financial reform efforts, including his decision in 2020 to strip the Vatican Secretariat of State of authority to manage its financial assets.
It also added more context on Pope Francis' reminder that the Roman Curia has a "particular responsibility to demonstrate the fidelity spoken of in the Gospel by acting in accordance with the principle of transparency and in the absence of any conflict of interest."
"Faithfulness in matters of little account is related, according to Scripture, to faithfulness in those of greater account," the pope wrote in his 2021 decree promoting greater transparency in the management of Vatican's finances.
"Likewise, dishonesty in matters of little account is related to dishonesty in those of greater" importance, he wrote.
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