Trial set in case of donations for pope's hospital for kids

Tarcisio Bertone

VATICAN CITY -- Other than St. Peter's Basilica, there is hardly better real estate in Vatican City than the sprawling penthouse apartment in the Vatican gardens, where the rooftop terrace has views of the dome itself and overlooks the hotel that Pope Francis calls home.

The 3,230-square-foot bachelor pad, belonging to the previous pope's second-in-command, looked even better after undergoing a $481,000 face-lift.

Who footed the bill? The Bambino Gesu Pediatric Hospital foundation, which raises money for sick children at the "pope's hospital" in Rome.

A recent Associated Press investigation uncovered a secret 2014 Vatican probe that found the hospital's mission under its past administration had become "more aimed at profit" than patient care.

Now the renovations at Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone's flat have sparked a criminal trial that shines a light on how some of that money was spent.

The Vatican today will put its past hospital president, Giuseppe Profiti, and former hospital treasurer, Massimo Spina, on trial on charges they diverted hospital donations to renovate Bertone's retirement fixer-upper.

The Vatican tribunal, located just steps away from the palazzo in question, has warned the two defendants would be tried in absentia if they don't show up.

It's the latest financial scandal to strike the Holy See as Francis works to clean up centuries of shady business dealings in the walled-in, offshore city state, the world's smallest. And it comes as Francis copes with the fallout from the embarrassing exit of his top financial adviser, Cardinal George Pell, who returned to his native Australia last week to face trial on years-old sex abuse charges.

Profiti, who had been appointed hospital president by Bertone in 2008, has said the $481,000 in hospital foundation funds he used to spruce up Bertone's home was an investment, since he intended to use it for fundraising events for the hospital.

"The presence of Your Illustrious Eminence as a guest at these events would be a guarantee of a certain success in terms of participation and relative economic and institutional return," Profiti wrote Bertone in a Nov. 7, 2013 letter pitching the idea.

He proposed the soirees take place in Bertone's home, with its views and close-to-the-pope pedigree, to "give a further sense of exclusiveness and privilege" to potential benefactors.

Bertone readily agreed, replying the next day he would take care to ensure "third parties" -- and not the foundation -- would pay for whatever renovations were needed. Whatever happened to those "third parties" is unclear, but Bertone spent $338,000 of his own money for the work on top of the $481,000 that came from the foundation.

Bertone's successor as Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has said the trial is evidence of the transparency Pope Francis wants to bring to the Catholic Church's finances.

Bertone wasn't charged or placed under investigation, though he benefited from the donations. After the scandal broke in 2015, Bertone made a $172,000 "donation" to the hospital for research but insisted he had no idea the foundation had paid for his flat repair.