Italian cardinal Angelo Becciu, who has been linked to a real estate scandal, resigned suddenly in one of the most mysterious episodes to hit the Holy See in years.

Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu  in the Apostolic Palace at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu in the Apostolic Palace at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. (AFP)

One of the most influential Vatican cardinals, Angelo Becciu of Italy, has resigned his position unexpectedly, the Holy See announced without explanation.

"The Holy Father accepted the resignation from the office of Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and from the rights connected to the Cardinalate, presented by His Eminence Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu," a one-line statement late on Thursday said.

After a career as a Vatican emissary, Becciu worked for the last six years as the Substitute for General Affairs, a role akin to chief of staff, and one of Pope Francis' most trusted aids. 

Investigation

There is speculation that the surprise resignation could be a sanction.

Becciu has been linked to an investigation underway within the Vatican over the last year into a property development in the exclusive Chelsea area of London that was paid for with offshore funds.

The process to invest in the scheme to build luxury apartments began in 2014 when Becciu was in the Vatican secretariat, the central bureaucracy of the Holy See.

The Vatican's police force raided the offices of the secretariat last year to seize financial documents and computers, while five members of staff were suspended.

Becciu defended the purchase at the beginning of the year during an interview.

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Alleged misconduct

The last time a cardinal’s rights were removed was when American Theodore McCarrick renounced his rights and privileges as a cardinal in July 2018 amid a sexual abuse investigation. He was subsequently defrocked altogether by Francis last year for sexually abusing adults as well as minors.

Before him, the late Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien in 2015 relinquished the rights and privileges of being a cardinal after unidentified priests alleged sexual misconduct.

O’Brien was, however, allowed to retain the cardinal’s title and he died a member of the College of Cardinals, the elite group of churchmen whose main job is to elect a pope.

In the Vatican statement, the Holy See identified Becciu as “His Eminence Cardinal Angelo Becciu,” making clear he remained a cardinal but without any rights.

At 72, Becciu would have been able to participate in a possible future conclave to elect Francis’ successor.

Cardinals over age 80 can't vote. But by renouncing his rights as a cardinal, Becciu has relinquished his rights to take part.

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'Substitute'

Becciu was the “substitute,” or top deputy in the secretariat of state from 2011-2018, when Francis made him a cardinal and moved him into the Vatican’s saint-making office. He straddled two pontificates, having been named by Pope Benedict XVI and entrusted with essentially running the Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, a position that gave him enormous influence and power.

The financial problems date from 2014, when the Vatican entered into a real estate venture by investing over $200 million in a fund run by an Italian businessman.

The deal gave the Holy See 45 percent of the luxury building at 60 Sloane Ave. in London’s Chelsea neighbourhood.

The money came from the secretariat of state’s asset portfolio, which is funded in large part by the Peter’s Pence donations of Catholics around the world for the pope to use for charity and Vatican expenses.

The Holy See decided in November 2018, after Becciu had left the secretariat of state, to exit the fund, end its relationship with the businessman and buy out the remainder of the building.

It did so after Becciu's successor determined that the mortgage was too onerous and that the businessman was losing money for the Vatican in some of the fund’s other investments.

The buyout deal, however, cost the Holy See tens of millions of euros more and sparked the Vatican investigation that has so far implicated a half-dozen Vatican employees.

'Opaque'

Becciu has insisted he wasn’t in power during the 2018 buyout deal and always acted in the sole interests of the Holy See. In the Vatican prosecutor's initial warrant, Becciu is not named, and it remains unclear if his role in managing the secretariat of state's vast asset portfolio was connected with the resignation.

His former boss, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, has said the whole matter was “opaque" and needed to be clarified. Francis, for his part, has vowed to get to the bottom of what he has said was evidence of corruption in the Holy See.

Francis would meet regularly with Becciu in the Italian's role as prefect of the saint-making office, since every month or two he would present lists of candidates for possible beatification or canonisation for Francis to approve.

In addition, since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis had an annual luncheon date at Becciu's apartment along with 10 priests on the Thursday of Holy Week leading up to Easter.

The Vatican always reported the get-togethers were a chance for the pope to chat informally with Becciu and priests of his diocese on the day the church celebrates the institution of the priesthood.

The luncheon didn't happen this year amid the Vatican's coronavirus lockdown.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies