In a hushed courtroom in the heart of the Vatican, Angelo Becciu, once the most powerful cardinal in Rome, is listening to a tale of plunder, passion and Prada handbags. Smooth-featured, and still handsome at 73, Becciu strokes his rosary and occasionally glances across at the slender, well-dressed woman seated on a bench nearby.
In the gossipy back corridors of the Holy See, Cecilia Marogna, 41, is known as the ‘Cardinal’s Lady’ – the key figure in an extraordinary scandal that has cost the Vatican hundreds of millions of dollars and destroyed the reputation of a man tipped as a future pope.
Cecilia and the cardinal are jointly on trial for a string of offences including embezzlement, fraud and money-laundering. But as the testimony unfolds, the question consuming Italy is: what is the true relationship between the pair? While Becciu has enjoyed a stellar rise through the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy, Cecilia is portrayed as a shadowy femme fatale, who came from nowhere to insinuate herself into the older man’s life and exploit the connection for personal gain.
Both deny they were lovers, but around them swirl awkward accounts of exotic holidays, luxury spa visits, and large bills run up in expensive restaurants and top Italian fashion boutiques including Fendi, Missoni and Prada.
Investigators have found evidence of numerous visits Cecilia made to the cardinal’s official residence in the Vatican’s 16th Century Apostolic Palace. On one occasion, according to court tesimony, she arrived carrying a suitcase and did not leave until the next morning: “The circumstances of the encounter, and the observed behaviour of the woman suggest a relationship,” noted the investigators.
The court was shown social media posts from Cecilia, containing photographs taken inside the Cardinal’s private rooms with captions such as: “Feeling at home here” and “this is my paradise.”
According to Vatican Police Commissioner, Stefano De Santis, the cardinal – when confronted with the evidence – “held his head in his hands, and pleaded that the name of Cecila Marogna not be made public as it would cause great damage to himself and his family.”
The trial has its beginnings in a disastrous €350 million (AUD$536 million) investment in a building in London. Auditors later discovered the property, located in upscale South Kensington, was worth nowhere near the sum paid, and the subsequent inquiry led directly to Becciu, then serving as the Vatican’s Secretary of State.
Prosecutors allege that a sprawling web of financial fraud gradually emerged, leading to the arrests of 10 people, most prominently Becciu himself, who was last year stripped of his post and privileges by Pope Francis. As they waded through a morass of financial records, investigators began to notice a recurring but unfamiliar name – Cecilia Marogna.
Who was she? No one in the Vatican seemed to know. But when it emerged that she had been paid over $800,000 in ‘consultation fees’, the questions became more urgent. The cardinal cited her as an ‘intelligence and security consultant’ who, he said, had provided him with expert help after the 2017 kidnapping of a Catholic nun in Mali.
Quite what qualifications Cecilia possessed for the task remain unclear, but over the next few years the couple appear to have developed a close relationship. And in Cecilia’s case an extremely lucrative one.
Rather than the lawless wastes of Mali, she seems to have spent a lot of time on the Via del Corso, Rome’s luxury shopping thoroughfare. Investigators have recovered more than 120 receipts for items, ranging from a $12,000 Chanel sling bag to a $3,500 Montblanc pen, along with records of stays at grand hotels in the spa town of San Pellegrino and the ritzy Alpine resort of Bormio. Her cash withdrawals alone totalled $100,000.
A bespectacled brunette whose last known job was as a sales manager at a mobile phone company, Cecilia would have grown up well aware of the cardinal’s eminence.
Both of them come from Sardinia, a large, rugged island off Italy’s western coast. Cecilia was raised in Sorso, a quiet seaside town on the north shore, later moving to the capital, Cagliari, where she attended college, but left before completing her diploma.
In the early 2000s, for reasons that remain unclear, she spent time in Lebanon. The Middle Eastern country was ablaze with feuding factions and foreign-backed militias fighting for dominance. Assassinations and kidnappings were rife, and in this perilous milieu, Cecilia seems to have first sensed the allure of playing power games.
Returning to Cagliari, she found a job with the local Nokia phone sales franchise, but her social media posts from the time suggest she already had other things in mind. In 2005, she described herself on the professional listings site, Linkedin, as: “Geopolitical analyst, parallel diplomacy and strategy consultant and problem solver.”
She also found a boyfriend, Alessandro Calleni, the manager of a local hair products store, with whom she moved into a flat in the busy heart of the old city. Alessandro remembers their life together being happy and largely uneventful apart from the birth of a daughter in 2011. Two years later they broke up.
Alessandro says he was stunned by the news of Cecilia’s arrest, and the scabrous tales that have since spilled out of the Vatican courtroom: “I feel like I’m hallucinating,” he says. “It’s a nightmare. I can’t sleep at night. She never spoke to me about any of these things.”
He insists she never showed any interest in espionage or global security matters while they were together. “We never once talked about it. I’m an ordinary guy. I don’t even know what ‘geopolitics’ is. They say she learned about these things herself, but how? From books? Where? Sitting on the sofa in our apartment? I don’t understand any of it. I can only hope it ends well for our daughter’s sake.”
Spies & subterfuge
However ill-acquainted Cecilia really was with the world of spies, subterfuge and dirty dealing, she had clearly looked into the subject, and knew of a man who could teach her everything. At which point the tale – described by an Italian magazine as “Ian Fleming meets Dan Brown” – takes another extraordinary twist.
The name of Flavio ‘The Icy Fixer’ Carboni – friend of mobsters, crooked tycoons, bent judges and corrupt politicians – hangs like a dread shadow over his native Sardinia. For more than 50 years, Carboni was a central figure in some of the biggest scandals in Italian history. He seemed to have something over everyone, and although there was barely a time when he wasn’t on trial or under investigation, he enjoyed a Houdini-like ability to escape justice.
Flavio’s most infamous role was in the still-unsolved murder of Roberto Calvi, the high-profile Milanese financier known as ‘God’s Banker’. At the height of his career, Calvi ran one of Europe’s richest private banks, with a client list that included the Vatican and the Mafia. He tried to take them both for a ride, and in 1982 was found hanging from a rope under London’s Blackfriars Bridge, with house bricks in his suit pockets and gravel stuffed into his underpants.
To this day, nobody knows exactly how Calvi met his death. What is certain is that Carboni was the last man to see him alive, having flown to London with two mob associates, Pippo ‘The Paymaster’ Calo, and Francesco ‘Frankie the Strangler’ Di Carlo. All three men were later acquitted of murder.
Reasoning that there was no one better to explain the dark arts of statecraft than the semi-retired Icy Fixer, Cecilia made contact, and according to investigators, studied at his knee. Carboni, who died last year, aged 90, had been deemed too ill to give evidence at trial.
Enthused by what she had heard and learned, Cecilia’s descriptions of the skills she offered became ever more extravagant. In various posts she describes herself as a: “Geo-social-economic-political analyst”, as well as a “mentalist, globe-trotter, and expert in esotericism”. What she didn’t have were any clients, but a big chance was about to come her way.
In February 2017, Gloria Narváez, a Columbian-born nun working as a missionary in central Mali, was seized by jihadists in the run-down central town of Koutiala. No ransom demands or communiqués were received, and after a search by local security forces found nothing, the case landed on the desk of the much-admired Cardinal Becciu.
Born into a religious farming family in the small town of Pattada, celebrated for its pungent sheep cheeses, Becciu had joined the church in his early teens, entering the priesthood at 23. Already marked out as an accomplished scholar with high ambitions, he was sent to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, an elite Vatican college that trains priests for service overseas.
For much of his subsequent career, he worked under the Holy See’s diplomatic arm, serving in Sudan, New Zealand, the United States and Cuba. Tough-minded and plain spoken, he won a reputation for tackling potentially sensitive issues head-on. While in Angola, he denounced the widespread belief in sorcery, which he argued led to child abuse. “These practices are too common on the African continent,” he declared, “and must be stopped.”
In 2011, having built a formidable reputation as a doer and sorter, ‘Don Angelino’ as he was affectionately known back in Sardinia, was recalled to be deputy head of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State – the governing bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. In effect, he ran the inner machinery of the Holy See, directing its affairs and speaking to the Pope on a daily basis.
This was a huge promotion, and many insiders saw it as a fast-tracking for Becciu to become a future pope. Cecilia already had ‘Don Angelino’ on her contacts list. The pair had first met in 2016 after she wrote to him asking for a meeting. The cardinal seems to have been impressed. “I immediately appreciated her expertise in geopolitics and intelligence,” he told the court last year in May. “The lady suggested a professional collaboration. I didn’t take this as a request for employment, but simply an offer of discussions and exchanging ideas, and at other meetings we had I became impressed by her competence.”
When Sister Gloria went missing, it was to Cecilia that Becciu fatefully turned. Assuring him of her “invaluable experience and close contacts with organised criminals and insurgent groups in Central Africa,” she suggested working in tandem with a British security company. Her own fee would be $800,000, which she wanted paid into a bank account in Slovenia.
Incredibly, Becciu not only signed off on this, but claims the deal was personally approved by Pope Francis. “I remind you,” he wrote to a senior Vatican administrator, “that I talked about this to the Holy Father, and he wants to keep the provisions in deep secrecy.” An upfront payment of around $20,000 in cash was delivered to Becciu on the morning of April 9, 2018, and an hour later handed to Cecilia, who deposited the bulk of it into a bank located immediately outside the Vatican walls. The rest was paid in large tranches into a corporate account Cecilia had set up at a bank in Slovenia.
Much of the money seems to have been blown on expensive luxuries and high living, and investigators admit they are nowhere near tracing all of it. Nor are they sure of how far the relationship between the cardinal and his lady really went. In court Becciu indignantly denied that anything improper had happened between them: “Here and now I must express a strong and vibrant exception to the way this relationship has been distorted with the most offensive inferences,” he said. “These suggestions are the lowest nature, and damaging to my priestly dignity.”
Asked to explain what Cecilia was doing in his apartment overnight, Becciu cited a passage from one of Italy’s most famous novels, The Betrothed, by 19th century writer Alessandro Manzini: “Remember how Father Cristoforo welcomes Lucia (the ill-starred heroine) to the monastery, when she is in need? Signora Marogna came to me in the evening. We talked a lot and it grew late. When she was going to leave, the nuns who assist me said: ‘The lady is too afraid to go to the hotel, because there is Covid. Can we put her up?’ I said yes, and I found her the next morning at breakfast, and that was all.”
In a prison interview given to an Italian magazine after her arrest, Cecilia took a similar line. “All these things are falsehoods,” she declared. “It is absurd to say that I am the cardinal’s lover. I am an intelligence expert, who works hard and pays her way in life.”
She claimed that her fee was to be spread over four years and included travel, accommodation and living expenses. What about the Prada handbags? “Maybe they were gifts for other people who could help,” she said. “You do something for someone, and perhaps they do you a favour back.”
Even $800,000 only goes so far on the Via del Corso. Today Cecilia seems to be broke. Bailiffs have taken possession of her flat in Cagliari, her car has been sold, and her lawyer, Riccardo Sindoca, describes her as “crushed between the power of money and the Church.”
Sister Gloria was freed unharmed in November 2021 after what was described as a joint diplomatic effort by the governments of Mali and Columbia. Before returning home, she flew to Rome to be received by Pope Francis.
The cardinal and his lady were otherwise engaged. And as we go to press, the Vatican’s so-called “trial of the century” continues.