Vatican’s foolish response to leaks

The Vatican appears to be responding from the wrong playbook to the leaking of confidential documents. It is acting like a state rather than a church.

True, Vatican City is a state that can enact and prosecute laws, but it is also the central office of the Catholic church. In this case, it should act like a church not a state.

The Vatican has criminally charged five people -- two journalists and three Vatican employees -- with "procuring and revealing" confidential information.

The journalists, Emiliano Fittipaldi and Gianluigi Nuzzi, have both published books on questionable Vatican spending and financial practices based on leaked confidential documents.

At the 70-minute initial hearing in a Vatican courtroom, the reporters protested that the trial violates their rights as journalists recognized in Italy, Europe, and by the United Nations.

The International Association of Journalists Accredited at the Vatican issued a statement Tuesday expressing "consternation and worry" that two journalists were being prosecuted for publishing leaked documents when "publishing news is exactly their work."

Msgr. Angel Vallejo Balda and Francesca Chaouqui were arrested by Vatican officials earlier this month on suspicion of leaking the documents used in the books. He had been secretary of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, and she, a public relations specialist, had been a member of the Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See.

Nicola Maio, a lay assistant to Monsignor Balda, was also charged.

The three employees are charged with criminal conspiracy "to divulge information and documents concerning the fundamental interests of the Holy See and the [Vatican City] State," while all five defendants are charged with criminal misappropriation and misuse of Vatican documents.

Vatican employees who leak documents should not be prosecuted; they should be disciplined like any church employee who leaks confidential information. In the extreme, they could be fired, stripped of all titles and privileges, and even banned from working for any other church entity.

But the idea of putting Vatican employees on trial for leaking documents does not pass the laugh test. Pope Benedict pardoned his butler after he was convicted in 2012 of stealing documents from the papal apartments, and Pope Francis will undoubtedly do the same if these people are convicted. Why bother?

Prosecuting journalists is even worse. It puts the Vatican in the company of authoritarian regimes who have no respect for freedom of the press. This is stupid and wrong. In addition, if the Italian journalists were convicted it is unlikely that Italy would extradite them to the Vatican. Why go through this farce?

Leaks of official secrets drive government officials crazy. One thing every U.S. president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama has in common is their hatred of leaks. To that list we can now add Pope Francis.

On Nov. 8, he spoke of leaked documents during his Angelus address. "I know that many of you have been upset by the news circulating in recent days concerning the Holy See’s confidential documents that were taken and published," he said. "For this reason I want to tell you, first of all, that stealing those documents was a crime. It’s a deplorable act that does not help."

Leaks are especially frustrating when they come from people who have been trusted with these secrets because they were thought to be loyal supporters.

Leaks can cause political damage to government officials and in the worst cases threaten national security. They release information that can thwart government plans before they can be implemented. Francis has made clear that the leaks will not deter him from reforming the finances of the Vatican.

Sometime leaks embarrass governments by releasing information that they would prefer to keep private. Francis clearly wanted to use this information to reform Vatican finances, but he may not have wanted to prosecute or publicize all past offenses.

At a minimum leaks get governments off message as they run around trying to plug the leaks. These leaks have certainly gotten Francis off message.

Sometimes leaks come from people who in principle hate secrecy and support transparency in government. They can also result from an official simply wanting to help a journalist do his job. But leaks can also result from bribes or blackmail. Such methods violate journalistic ethics and may be prosecutable offenses.

How a government responds to leaks can affect its reputation with the media and the public. Here we must distinguish between how the government responds to the leakers from how it responds to the press who prints the leak.

The government prosecution of the leaking of state secrets (with whistleblower exceptions) is legitimate depending on the damage the disclosure causes. If lives or national security are put at risk by the disclosure, criminal prosecution would be merited.

The financial documents leaked from the Vatican do not rise to the level of national security secrets. Only if they make it impossible to prosecute financial crooks in the Vatican, would they rise to the level of a crime.

Certainly no one should be surprised at being fired for leaking confidential information (with whistleblower exceptions). This is true in government, business, and churches.

Verbally attacking the press for printing leaks is fair game, as is making their jobs difficult by not granting them interviews or temporarily throwing them out of the press office. But even these "trips to the woodshed" must be limited least you turn them into martyrs with their colleagues.

One White House press officer got even with a reporter by leaving him in his office with a document marked "Top Secret" on his desk. The document was a fake and would have destroyed the reporter’s career if the official had not told the reporter before he filed his story.

Criminal prosecution of the media is only done in extremely rare cases where lives are at stake. Governments that prosecute reporters for printing other kinds of leaks are abusing their power and interfering in the fundamental right of free press.  

What is the best advice for both government and church officials when faced with a leak? "Take a deep breath. Calm down. Have a drink. Recognize that leaks are inevitable. Don’t unleash the police on the press; that will simply cause more damage. Find the leakers and fire them."

The Vatican is very good at keeping secrets, especially in the foreign policy area. Remember how the Vatican hosted secret negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba.

But the Vatican can also leak like a sieve, especially on disputed church questions. Remember how prior to the 2013 papal conclave everything said at the meeting of cardinals leaked out. During those meetings the U.S. cardinals were told not to hold press conferences because the Italian cardinals wanted to selectively leak information to their favorite journalists.

Leaking by Vatican employees, lay and clerical (including cardinals), is widespread. The joke in the Vatican is that a pontifical secret is a secret you can only tell one person at a time. The Vatican’s response shows how it is still very much an Italian institution worried about how it is portrayed in the Italian media.

The truth is that every Vatican journalist worth his salt has received leaked information from all levels of the Vatican. When practically everything is classified as secret, there is no other way of covering the beat.

The Vatican needs to take a breath and back off from this counterproductive strategy and act like a church and not a state. These prosecutions are antithetical to Francis' reforms. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]


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