Kill the Messenger

Vatican Puts Whistleblowers On Trial

The Vatican is trying two journalists and their alleged sources for revealing corruption and cronyism at the Holy See.

11.23.15 6:05 PM ET

VATICAN CITY — When Italian journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi walk into a Vatican tribunal on Tuesday morning, it will be the first time in centuries that anyone has been tried for what amounts to heresy at the Holy See. The two journalists are officially charged with the “unlawful disclosure of information and confidential documents” used in books (Merchants in the Temple by Nuzzi and Avarizia or Greed by Fittipaldi) published in November, but the reality feels a little bit more like the return of the Inquisition. 

In fact, Nuzzi has been able garner considerable support on social network channels by asking followers to tweet pictures of his book cover under the hashtag #noinquisition (#noinquisizione in Italian). “Revealing secret [Vatican] news does not earn a medal, as happens for the free press in the entire democratic world,” he wrote on his website on November 10 when he refused to meet the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, who acts as the attorney general in Vatican cases. “Instead it is always, and in every case, a crime.”

So worrying is the potential infringement on the free press by the Holy See that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reprimanded the Vatican for going ahead with the trial. “Journalists must be free to report on issues of public interest and to protect their confidential sources,” said Dunja Mijatovic, a spokesman for OSCE said in a statement released on Monday. “I call on the authorities not to proceed with the charges and protect journalists’ rights in accordance with OSCE commitments.”

Italian journalist and writer Gianluigi Nuzzi, left, and Emiliano Fittipaldi in Rome.

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Nuzzi and Fittipaldi will be joined in the dock on Tuesday by Spanish monsignor Angel Lucio Vallejo Balda and sexy suspected spy Francesca Immocalata Chaouqui along with Vallejo Balda’s personal secretary, Nicola Maio. The three are charged with leaking confidential documents to the journalists.  Vallejo Balda and Chaouqui were on an eight-member advisory panel called the Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic Administrative Structure of the Holy See, set up by Pope Francis in 2013 to help guide him through the thick mess that the Vatican’s financial arm had become. 

The advisory committee was disbanded after making recommendations that formed the basis for the Vatican’s new Secretariat for the Economy, headed by Cardinal George Pell who oversees the council for the Economy.

What the books revealed were the gory details about corruption and cronyism that led to the Vatican’s finances fiasco. Not only were some high-priced Vatican properties apparently let out for next to nothing as favors to friends, but there were veiled accusations that postulators for sainthood may have pocketed nearly half a million dollars. There were also details about how money intended for the poor allegedly went to renovation projects for cardinals, and salacious suggestions about everything from contraband cigarette rings to secret sects within the Holy See. 

Both journalists expressed shock that it was them, not the protagonists of their books, who were under investigation. “Maybe I’m naive but I believed they would investigate those I denounced for criminal activity, not the person that revealed the crimes,” Fittapaldi told ANSA news when he was indicted.

Vallejo Balda, who previously served as secretary of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, has been in custody since his arrest on November 2. Chaouqui was also arrested that day but released from custody after she started cooperating with the Vatican’s promoter of justice. In a television interview with an Italian talk show, she accused Vallejo Balda of clandestinely taping Pope Francis in a top-secret meeting on the Vatican’s sorry state of financial affairs. “Our books are not in order, we have to clean them up,” Francis said, as relayed by Nuzzi in his book Merchants in the Temple. “If we don’t know how to look after money, which you can see, how can we look after the souls of the faithful, which you can’t see?”

The five unusual suspects were indicted on Saturday and the quick turnaround to trial on Tuesday was met by protests from the defense lawyers, who were denied a delay. At first Nuzzi said he would not attend the trial, but after reconsidering he said he would face his accusers. Chaouqui will be there too. “I’ve decided that on Tuesday I’ll defend myself on trial, to show that not one paper ever passed from my hands to those of a journalist, any journalist, not only Emiliano and Gianluigi,” Chaouqui wrote on her Facebook page. “Maybe it won’t do any good, but I’ll fight like a lion so that the truth emerges.”

The Vatican has been down this road before. In 2012, Pope Benedict’s butler Paolo Gabrielli was convicted of leaking documents to Nuzzi for his previous book His Holiness, which is actually what prompted the Vatican to make the leaking of documents illegal.

The Vatican has earnestly dismissed the books’ contents as gossip and old news, underscoring that reforms under Pope Francis are working to fix what was so badly broken. But Nuzzi said recently that his book instead shows the work yet to be done. “The people who made this material available to me did so because they are pained by the huge gap between what Francis has promised and what is being done to hinder his reforms and undermine his credibility,” Nuzzi said, adding that it was meant to help the pope.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi disagrees. “One must absolutely avoid the mistake of thinking that this is a way to help the mission of the Pope,” he said when news of the initial arrests broke. Instead, he said the five suspects amount to “an organized criminal association with the intention of disclosing information and documents concerning the fundamental interests of the Holy See.”

The trial is expected to wrap up before the end of the year. All suspects face between four and eight years in prison, but, if the butler’s case is any indication, even if they are convicted, they may be forgiven. Pope Benedict pardoned his butler shortly after his jail sentence began. We may soon find out of Francis is also the forgiving type.