By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Two men who used to run a Vatican-owned children's hospital were put on trial on Tuesday, accused of diverting nearly half a million dollars of funds to renovate a top cardinal's luxury flat.
The trial, which puts on public display the challenges Pope Francis faces in trying to clean up the Vatican, began with the court rejecting a defense motion to dismiss, as well as a request to bar journalists.
Giuseppe Profiti and Massimo Spina, respectively the former president and treasurer of the Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome, are charged with spending 422,000 euros ($481,000) in 2013 and 2014 on refurbishing the large Vatican apartment of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's former number two.
The trial was adjourned until Sept. 7, and the court left open the possibility that Bertone, who was not indicted, might be called as a witness.
His retirement apartment, which has a huge terrace and breath-taking view of the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, has become a symbol of the frugal-minded pope's efforts to rein in the luxury some Church leaders still enjoy.
Bertone, 82, was the Vatican secretary of state, effectively the deputy pope, for most of the pontificate of former Pope Benedict and was one of the most powerful men in the Roman Catholic Church.
He was removed from office in 2013, eight months after the election of Francis. The renovation started a few weeks later on the spacious property, which is next door to the Vatican guest house where the pope lives in a modest suite.
At the trial's start in the Vatican's tiny courtroom in a building just a stone's throw from the both the apartment and the pope's residence, lawyers for the defense asked that journalists be barred from future hearings.
One, Antonello Blasi, said journalists would disturb the hearings and that their "gestures of disapproval" could influence the three-judge panel.
"BREATHING DOWN OUR BACKS"
The trial is being covered by a rotating pool of eight journalists who then report back to their colleagues.
Chief prosecutor Gian Piero Milano, ridiculed another defense lawyer who said he felt the journalists were "breathing down our backs". Milano said: "I am sorry that you have no 'safety distance' from the journalists."
The judges rejected the request that journalists watch via a video link in an adjacent room, saying the trial was in the public interest.
They also rejected two defense requests to declare that the Vatican court had no jurisdiction over the accused because the hospital they ran is in Italy and because the money paid to an Italian construction company to finance the renovation was first sent to an affiliate in London.
The Bambino Gesu, considered one of Italy's best pediatric hospitals, is in Rome but has extra-territorial status as part of the Vatican, a sovereign state. It was founded by a wealthy Italian family in 1869 and donated to the Vatican in 1924.
Profiti and Spina risk prison sentences of three to five years if convicted, under Vatican laws on conspiracy to commit a crime and misappropriation of funds.
When the Vatican confirmed last year that Profiti and Spina were under investigation, a lawyer for Bertone said the cardinal had never asked for or authorized payment for the restoration work from hospital funds.
Profiti has said the hospital used its funds to renovate Bertone's apartment because the cardinal had agreed that it could be used for fundraising.
Hospital officials said at the time that Bertone had given 150,000 euros of his own money to Bambino Gesu to make amends for damage done to the hospital's image.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)