International News

Former Employee Arrested in Vatican Sting Operation for Alleged Fraud

The famed Baldacchino by Bernini in St. Peter’s Basilica. (Photo:: Vatican Media)

By Crux Staff

ROME – A former Vatican employee has been arrested in a sting operation and is currently behind bars awaiting formal charges for trying to sell back a manuscript he allegedly pilfered from the archives of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican confirmed Thursday, after the incident was first reported in the Italian newspaper Domani.

At least one individual with knowledge of the manuscript in question, however, has raised doubts about whether it actually ever was part of the basilica’s archives.

Although the report in Vatican News, the official state-owned news agency, does not name the suspect, Domani and other Italian outlets have identified him as Alfio Maria Daniele Pergolizzi, an art historian who ran the communications office for St. Peter’s Basilica from 1995 to 2011.

According to details provided by Domani, Pergolizzi, accompanied by another unidentified individual, met May 27 with Italian Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, head of the administration for St. Peter’s Basilica, to sell him a manuscript prepared by the school of artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini describing the gold necessary to decorate the famed Baldacchino that rises above the basilica’s main altar.

According to Vatican News, the administration of St. Peter’s Basilica informed the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice that the manuscript originally had been part of its archives but disappeared, only to resurface in 2021 as a photocopy in a book published that year and edited by Pergolizzi, who was now trying to sell it back.

During the May 27 meeting, Gambetti reportedly gave Pergolizzi a check for roughly $130,000 in exchange for the manuscript, but the transaction was a trap: Shortly afterwards, Pergolizzi and the individual with him were detained in front of the Domus Santa Marta, the residence where Pope Francis lives, and interrogated by Vatican gendarmes.

While the unnamed individual was released, Pergolizzi was taken into custody and, according to reports, is now in a Vatican jail cell awaiting formal charges for extortion, fraud and receiving stolen property.

“Currently the accused is in custody at the offices of the Gendarmes of the Vatican City State,” the Vatican News report said. “In recent days he was subjected to two interrogations and next week, in accord with the investigating judge, the Promoter of Justice will make a decision regarding an indictment.”

The Vatican’s Promoter of Justice is veteran Italian lawyer Alessandro Diddi, who was the main prosecutor in the recent “trial of the century” for financial fraud which resulted in the convictions of nine defendants, including Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu.

Another Italian media outlet, Dagospia, also reported that Italian authorities have sequestered certain goods that Pergolizzi had stored in a warehouse, presumably to search for other items he may have removed from the Vatican during his tenure.

Yet according to that same report, Maria Grazia D’Amelio, a professor of architecture at Tor Vergata University in Rome who authored the 2021 volume edited by Pergolizzi, which was titled Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini and the Gold for the Baldacchino of St. Peter (1624-1633), has said that she never saw any trace or reference to the manuscript during the multiple times she used the archives of St. Peter’s Basilica in her research.

D’Amelio said she never saw the original of the manuscript, only a scanned copy provided to her by Pergolizzi.

Media outlets have reported that Pergolizzi told the gendarmes that he received the manuscript from Italian Monsignor Vittorino Canciani, a former canon of St. Peter’s Basilica who died in 2014. The reports suggest his claim is that the manuscript was part of a private collection that came into Canciani’s possession, rather than being stolen from the basilica’s archives – a possibility which, presumably, will be examined by the Promoter of Justice’s office as part of its review.

In the meantime, at least one Italian news site has been critical of the use of deception by the Promoter of Justice to ensnare Pergolizzi. The news site “Faro di Roma” (“Lighthouse of Rome”), which was frequently critical of Diddi’s handling of the prosecution of Becciu, also expressed disapproval in this instance.

“Clearly, this is an investigation based on a trap set for a former employee, who admittedly perhaps didn’t behave like one,” a May 6 piece said. “Nevertheless, it’s stupefying that this kind of logic is followed within the Vatican State.”