ROME — Sometimes Pope Francis must surely wish he had a magic wand instead of a shepherd’s staff.
That way he could just wave it and make the embarrassing Vatileaks II case go away. Instead, the trial against a monsignor, a public relations specialist, an administrative aide, and two journalists for leaking and publishing secret documents is raining sleaze on the pope’s Easter parade.
The trial, which has been on a hiatus for three months while experts determined what technical and computer evidence could be used against the defendants, kicked off this week with a bang. The hearing started Monday with Spanish monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda, the only one of the five suspects in Vatican custody, on the witness stand.
Balda had been enjoying house arrest in Vatican City under the condition that he didn’t communicate with the outside world. Then, a few days before the trial reconvened, a sleuthing Vatican techie noticed that there was a spike in Wi-Fi usage from the wing where the monsignor was staying. Curious, the techie traced the Internet usage to a cellphone someone had smuggled in to the prelate, apparently inside a cutout in a religious book about the Franciscan order, according to the website Infovaticana, which is a sort of Drudge Report for Vatican watchers. Now Balda is back in a Vatican cell while the trial goes on.
When asked in court if he had leaked documents pertaining to his time on the Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See (COSEA) to journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, Balda admitted that he had, though he said he wasn’t “fully lucid” at the time. “Yes, I passed documents,” he told the court, explaining that he gave Nuzzi five emails and 87 passwords for documents related to the COSEA’s work. “I was convinced I was in a situation without exit.”
By that, he said he meant that his co-defendant Francesca Chaouqui, who was also on the COSEA committee, threatened his life if he didn’t give the documents to the journalists. Balda told the court that Chaouqui had implied to him she was the “No. 2 in the Italian secret service” and that if they needed it, she would “call the mafia for help.”
Then he offered up a WhatsApp message thread between the two in which Chaouqui apparently wrote, “I will destroy you in all the newspapers and you know that I can do it.”
“If that isn’t a concrete threat, what is?” Balda asked the court.
Chaouqui, who is from Calabria, home of the ‘Ndrangheta mob, angrily denied the rumors and came to court the following day with the university thesis she wrote about how the mafia had ruined her homeland. The thesis was dedicated to two anti-mafia judges who were assassinated in Palermo. “Accusing me of being connected to the mafia, as someone from Calabria, it is the worst attack that could be made on me,” she told reporters outside the Vatican tribunal gates.
Balda didn’t back down. He used his time on the stand to describe a night of passion he says he and Chaouqui shared at a Florentine hotel that was “compromising for me as a priest.” Chaouqui, who is pregnant with her first child, denies the allegations and says that, on the contrary, she was never sexually attracted to the “aging prelate,” who she says is gay.
Balda and Chaouqui, along with Balda’s administrative assistant, Nicola Maio, are accused of committing “several illegal acts of divulging news and documents concerning fundamental interests of the Holy See and State.”
Nuzzi and Fittipaldi were accused of “exercising pressure…in order to obtain confidential documents and news”—which, in most other contexts, amounts to doing the job of journalism well.
They all face up to eight years in a Vatican jail, although Balda is the only one who falls under Vatican City jurisdiction, so the others would only have to serve time if extradited from Italy to the Vatican City state.
On Tuesday afternoon, Fittipaldi took the stand but invoked his right to protect his sources for a number of the questions posed to him. He did admit to receiving documents from Balda, which, he said, weren’t of much journalistic value save one budget sheet and another letter signed by Cardinal George Pell, head of the Secretariat for the Economy, who has had his own legal troubles over pedophile priest cover-ups in his native Australia.
“In America, the journalists of The Boston Globe asked questions and were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering important information on pedophilia in the Spotlight case, and their story becomes an Oscar-winning movie,” he said. “In Italy, journalists who ask questions, who investigate very important questions on an economic structure riddled with corruption, end up being tried and risk four to eight years in prison. For the simple fact of asking questions.”
The trial resumes on Friday and is expected to wrap up sometime after Easter. In the first Vatileaks trial, Pope Benedict XVI’s butler was convicted of leaking documents to Nuzzi. He was ultimately convicted and pardoned by the pope.
But even if Francis ultimately forgives anyone eventually convicted of the crimes of leaking and publishing documents, it remains to be seen whether any lessons were learned and whether the embarrassment of this show trial was worth it.