Cardinal Angelo Becciu. / Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Vatican City, Mar 17, 2022 / 10:50 am (CNA).

Cardinal Angelo Becciu asserted his innocence in testimony before the Vatican court on Thursday.

“I am here with my head held high. With a clear conscience,” the cardinal said in a declaration on March 17. “I defend my right to innocence.”

“I declare my total availability to seek and to tell the truth with you. I am not afraid of it,” Becciu told judges as he took the witness stand for the first time.

The hearing marked the first day of witness testimony in a landmark trial of 10 defendants accused of financial malfeasance, mostly in connection with a London property purchased as an intended investment by the Vatican Secretariat of State.

Becciu, who was the second-ranking official at the Secretariat of State from 2011 to 2018, faces charges of embezzlement, abuse of office, and subornation of perjury, the crime of persuading a person to commit perjury.

In September 2020, Becciu resigned as prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and from the rights and privileges of the College of Cardinals. He has always denied any wrongdoing.

The 73-year-old Italian cardinal answered questions on March 17 about accusations that he misused Secretariat of State funds to unfairly benefit family members and his home diocese.

He has always denied reports that he wrongly directed Vatican and Italian bishops’ conference money to his brother’s corporation, which works with the local branch of Caritas in the Diocese of Ozieri.

The Ozieri diocese is located in the north of the Italian island of Sardinia, where Becciu is from.

One of Becciu’s brothers, Tonino Becciu, is the president and legal representative of Spes Cooperative, a limited liability corporation and the operative arm of the diocesan Caritas.

Becciu testified on Thursday that his brother managed Spes Cooperative as a volunteer and, until he retired from his day job in 2016, he was never paid for his work. Spes Cooperative paid Tonino Becciu the equivalent of a religion teacher’s salary from 2016 to 2021, the cardinal said.

In answer to questions from Court President Giuseppe Pignatone, Becciu defended payments totaling 225,000 euros (around $250,000) he made to the diocese for what he described as charitable projects.

These projects included hiring a baker at a bakery that employs people in need, the construction of a center for disadvantaged youth, and a currently unbuilt homeless and refugee shelter.

“They say this isn’t real charity. But charity isn’t just organizing a dinner for the poor. Charity is also more,” Becciu said.

Vatican prosecutors said that due to COVID-19 and other problems in their office, they were not prepared to question Becciu at Thursday’s hearing.

The cardinal will be called to give testimony again on April 6.

The trial’s next hearing, scheduled for March 30, will be the questioning of Msgr. Mauro Carlino, a former official at the Secretariat of State charged with extortion and abuse of office.

At the March 17 audience, the three-judge panel also considered the question of whether Becciu can testify against one of the 10 defendants, the self-described “security consultant” Cecilia Marogna.

Marogna, a 40-year-old from Sardinia, has been accused of misappropriating more than 500,000 euros (around $600,000) she received from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State through her Slovenia-registered company in 2018 and 2019.

Marogna has said that she worked for the Secretariat of State as a security consultant and strategist under Cardinal Becciu’s direction.

Regarding his dealings with Marogna, Becciu has invoked the pontifical secret, a rule of confidentiality protecting sensitive information regarding the governance of the universal Church.

The Vatican judges said they would confer with the Secretariat of State about whether the pontifical secret protects the information relevant to the trial and give their ruling on March 30.

Throughout the investigation and trial, Becciu has claimed that he is a victim of “machinations” and media derision.

In a declaration to the judges on Thursday, he said there had been “an unprecedented media massacre” and “a violent and vulgar campaign” presenting him “as the worst of cardinals.”

Becciu added that he had been described as corrupt, greedy, disloyal to the pope, and concerned only for the welfare of his family.

The cardinal also cited accusations that he “financed witnesses in a trial against a confrere,” appearing to refer to allegations that he sent money to Australia to pay witnesses to testify in the trial against Cardinal George Pell.

“Absurd accusations. Incredible. Grotesque. Monstrous. One wonders who wanted all this and for what purpose,” he said. “Certainly, it was to demonize and destroy me.”

“I want the truth to be proclaimed as soon as possible. I owe it to my conscience,” he said, adding that he owes it “above all to the Holy Father, who recently declared his belief in my innocence.”