Vatican cardinal pushes back after pope fires him in scandal

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ROME (AP) — The financial scandal that toppled Cardinal Angelo Becciu, one of the Vatican’s most powerful officials, mounted Friday with evidence that he directed hundreds of thousands of euros of Vatican and Italian church funds to a charity controlled by his brother.

But Becciu denied he did anything wrong, much less criminal, during an extraordinary news conference, a day after Pope Francis fired him and yanked his rights and privileges as a cardinal. The 72-year-old Becciu said his downfall was “surreal,” but that he had a clean conscience.

Becciu said Francis had asked him to step down as prefect of the Vatican’s saint-making office during a “troubled” 20-minute meeting Thursday evening in which the pope said he “no longer had confidence in me.”

Becciu had gone to the pope’s residence for a previously scheduled meeting to go over possible sainthood candidates when the pope told him that documents from the Italian financial police alleged he had embezzled 100,000 euros of Holy See money.

The cardinal’s name has been caught up in a whirlwind financial scandal involving the Holy See’s investment in a London real estate venture. But he said the issue that forced his removal was the allegation of embezzlement, which was first reported by the L’Espresso news magazine in excerpts published Friday.

Becciu, the former No. 2 in the Vatican’s secretariat of state, admitted he sent the money from the office’s asset fund in 2017 to his home diocese in Ozieri, Sardinia, for its charitable work. Becciu’s brother, Tonino Becciu, is the legal representative of the diocese’s charitable arm, Spes Cooperative.

Becciu said he also recommended the Italian bishops’ conference donate 300,000 euros to the same charitable fund years earlier to help set it up, but insisted that too was legitimate because it was the conference’s decision to do so.

Becciu said such donations were fully in line with directives that the secretariat of state’s off-the-books fund be destined toward charity. The bishop of Ozieri, Corrado Melis, issued a statement Friday saying the money was indeed destined for charity, but was never used and remains in the diocesan coffers.

“I don’t think I’ve committed any crime,” Becciu said during the news conference, sitting in front of a giant silver crucifix in a religious institute just off St. Peter’s Square.

Becciu said in giving up his rights and privileges as a cardinal he obviously would no longer vote in a conclave to elect a new pope. But he acknowledged that he can now also be judged by others, including Vatican magistrates, and not just the pope who has the exclusive rights to judge cardinals under canon law.

“If they want me to clarify, I’ll clarify,” Becciu said of Vatican prosecutors. “All the more now because the pope took away my rights as a cardinal and there’s no more obligation” that he be judged solely by the pontiff.

“So I’m a citizen like everyone else, and if they call me, I’m ready,” he said.

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