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One cardinal deciding on the next pope has had some embarrassing legal troubles

ROME—If things had gone differently, one of the 115 men sequestered within Vatican walls this week to select the next pope might well have been somewhere equally confining but far less appealing: prison.

Cardinal Michele Giordano, archbishop of Naples, was charged in 1999 with allegedly funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in church funds to his brother in what authorities said was a massive loan-sharking ring. The charges followed a two-year investigation in which prosecutors tapped the prelate's telephone and raided his offices.

A judge found him not guilty in December 2000. But the cardinal's legal troubles aren't over. In 2002, Giordano was convicted and sentenced to four and a half months' confinement for illegally subdividing a historic palace. The wealthy heiress who bequeathed the property is also suing the cardinal because he sought to convert the palace into apartments instead of a home for poor retired priests as she'd wished, according to Italian news reports.

Giordano's lawyer, Enrico Tuccillo, on Monday characterized the matter as a technical legal dispute.

"One of the things that went against the clergy is that, by coincidence, one of the architects was a relative of the cardinal's," he said. "That brought a bad odor."

The 2002 conviction was upheld on appeal and is now before Italy's highest criminal court. It's often difficult even for Italians to understand Italy's convoluted, delay-prone justice system, but legal experts say that a person with no prior criminal history wouldn't be required to serve jail time in such a case.

The loan-sharking charges could have landed the cardinal in prison. The judge's verdict after a short non-jury trial shocked some independent observers, who'd concluded that the evidence against the cardinal appeared solid.

"We were scandalized," said Pantaleone Sergi, who covered the affair for the national daily newspaper La Repubblica and other publications. "It was all documented—the numbers can't lie."

Tuccillo disputed that on Monday. "The judge looked at the evidence and excluded usury," he said, noting that the verdict was upheld on appeal.

As the case drew international media attention in the late 1990s, the cardinal didn't deny that he'd transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars in church money to his relatives, according to news accounts. But he said he didn't know that the money was allegedly being lent out at up to 300 percent interest, even as he was preaching against usury.

"I am clean inside, and someone up there knows it," said Giordano, a colorful figure who once preached a homily in Naples' cathedral in memory of a deceased Italian porn star.

Newspapers here said the cardinal was the highest-ranking Roman Catholic Church official to face criminal charges in Italy. He exercised his right to be tried by a judge behind closed doors.

How the Vatican handled Giordano contrasts with how it dealt with the scandal that enveloped Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who resigned as archbishop under pressure despite never having been charged criminally.

Through his troubles, Giordano has remained in full control of Italy's third-largest archdiocese. Six months before the verdict in the loan-sharking case, Pope John Paul II issued a special written blessing to the cardinal, saying the faithful "have no reason to tremble in the face of difficulties."

National Catholic Reporter columnist John L. Allen Jr., who speaks regularly with senior Vatican officials, wrote after the verdict that Giordano's woes were "a running embarrassment for the Vatican, given that John Paul II has so often preached against usury, and given that Giordano was allegedly stealing money from some of the poorest and most desperate people in Europe."

Allen added that "most people were convinced that no matter what happened ... Giordano would never see the inside of a jail cell, for the simple fact that he is a cardinal and this is Italy." He lamented "the clear perception the Catholic hierarchy has created, wittingly or not, that `taking care of its own' is its highest value."

The lead prosecutor in the case, Michelangelo Russo, declined to comment on the matter Monday, saying, "I stand on what was presented in court."

The charging document accused the cardinal and other defendants of singling out clients in financial trouble who had accounts at a bank branch office headed by Giordano's nephew. They allegedly were lent money at illegally high rates of interest.

Evidence in the case showed that $453,000 in lira had flowed from Giordano's accounts to his brother and $235,000 had flowed back, and prosecutors said that showed the cardinal was profiting from the loans.

"If I knew that my help ... was being used for illegal purposes, I wouldn't have given it to him," the cardinal said in 1998. "I would have hit him on the head."

On Monday, Giordano took his place in the Sistine Chapel, preparing to help select the next pope.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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