Journalists walk in 'Vatileaks' trial

The trial of Vatican officials and journalists in a nine-month leaked-documents saga known as “Vatileaks 2” concluded July 7 with a jail sentence meted out to a Spanish monsignor, while the others involved walked free.

Judge Giuseppe Della Torre, head of the tribunal of the Vatican City State, declared that the court had no jurisdiction over Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, the Italian journalists whose book-length exposés of financial malfeasance in the Vatican were based on documents leaked from Pope Francis’ reform commission, the Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See (COSEA).

But he found that the deputy head of that commission, Spanish Msgr. Lucio Vallejo Balda, was guilty of passing the confidential documents to the journalists. The judge sentenced him to serve 18 months in jail, although he has already served close to half of that sentence in the Collegio dei Penitenzieri, the college for the Franciscan friars who hear confessions in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica. Despite a period spent in the cells of the Vatican police earlier this year after he was caught with a mobile phone smuggled to him in a doughnut, the collegio has been his residence for the past eight months.

The judge also declared that former COSEA communications consultant Francesca Chaouqui was part of the conspiracy, although there was no proof of her actually handing over any documents. Despite her insisting that she was willing to go to prison with her newborn baby, she received a 10-month suspended sentence that she will never need to serve.

Meanwhile, Nicola Maio, Mgsr. Vallejo Balda’s former assistant, was found not guilty and acquitted of all charges.

Reform details

The sentencing brings to a close a lurid trial triggered by the arrest of Msgr. Vallejo Balda and Chaouqui by Vatican police on Nov. 2, 2015. They were apprehended on the eve of the publication of Nuzzi’s “Merchants in the Temple” and Fittipaldi’s “Avarice,” which detailed the curial financial mismanagement documented by COSEA at the end of 2013. Msgr. Vallejo Balda, who at the time of his arrest was still a Vatican official, remained in detention, whereas Chaouqui, who by the time of her arrest no longer worked in the defunct commission, was released after questioning.

Although the books painted a positive picture of a crusading Pope Francis behind the reforms, they also showed the extent to which a culture of waste and entitlement corrodes the proper functioning of the Vatican. COSEA discovered that, as result of irregularities, cronyism and at times outright corruption, the deficit was way out of control, and that most of the Peter’s Pence contributions from the local Church were used to plug the gap, money that Francis insists should mostly be spent on the poor. What the books did not relate, however, was the creation of the Secretariat of the Economy under Cardinal George Pell in February 2014, whose reforms have dealt with a number of the abuses highlighted by COSEA.

Msgr. Vallejo Balda and Chaouqui were hoping to be named to the new secretariat, and it appears that anger at being passed over was part of the motivation for the Spanish monsignor’s decision to leak the documents.

The decision to include the two journalists in the hearings generated a good deal of controversy. Although, as Italian citizens, they were under no obligation to appear in a Vatican court to answer questions, they chose to do so — the publicity of the case has not harmed their book sales — while claiming the Vatican was denying press freedom. In his sentencing, Judge Della Torre rejected that accusation, insisting that freedom of press and thought was enshrined in the Vatican legal code and “guaranteed by divine law.”

Courtroom drama

The reason for the trial was legislation introduced in 2013 following the first “Vatileaks” scandal, when Pope Benedict XVI’s butler passed Nuzzi confidential documents from the then pope’s desk, which the journalist published in a best-selling book.

Having passed a law that punishes the divulging of confidential Vatican documents with a maximum eight-year sentence, Francis had no choice but to act on evidence that Msgr. Vallejo Balda and Chaouqui had done so. Their guilt could only be ascertained by examining the pressures or blackmail involved, which is why the journalists were included in the hearing. In the end, the judges found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy concocted between the parties.

“If there is a law in place, then that law must be respected,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told journalists, adding that it was a question of the Holy See’s credibility. He said the eight-month-long process “was a great lesson in commitment to searching for the truth using human resources, along a path of dialogue,” and he praised the sentence as “fair and very clement, very humane.” 

Vatican-watchers and officials alike will miss the lurid soap-opera elements of the saga, not least the melodramatic claims by the 35-year-old Chaouqui about her intense and stormy relationship with the 54-year-old Msgr. Vallejo Balda. Having long since fallen out with each other before the hearing, their bitter recriminations — in emails and text messages — made up a large part of the evidence presented to the court.

Msgr. Vallejo Balda confessed early on that he gave Nuzzi 85 passwords to password-protected documents, not because of pressure from the journalists but from Chaouqui, who was angry at being denied a permanent Vatican job. He claimed she threatened him to pass the documents to her longstanding acquaintance Nuzzi after seducing him in a hotel room in Florence in 2014.

“Yes, I passed documents,” Msgr. Vallejo Balda confessed earlier in the hearing. “I did it spontaneously, probably not fully lucid. I was convinced there was no way out.”

She in turn spent much of the trial hurling insults in his direction — as well as at Vatican officials.

The nature of Chaouqui’s character turned out to be part of her lawyer’s defense. “Francesca Chaouqui isn’t likeable. She’s never quiet. She talks when she shouldn’t,” Laura Sgro told the court. “But you can’t convict her just because she’s unlikable, unpleasant, insufferable, arrogant and presumptuous.” Chaouqui, too, confessed she was “a proud and short-tempered person, and my character leads me to make mistakes.”

Austen Ivereigh is the author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30).