'VatiLeaks': A foolish and embarrassing case

Although the court's final decision was at least half right, the "VatiLeaks" case was a terrible mistake from the very beginning. It made the Vatican look vindictive and foolish. It was an embarrassment to the Vatican and the church.

The story starts back in November 2015 with the publication of Avarice by Emiliano Fittipaldi and Merchants in the Temple by Gianluigi Nuzzi, which were based on Vatican documents leaked to the Italian journalists. They were charged with violating Vatican law by soliciting the documents and pressuring Vatican officials to give them secret documents.

"Stealing documents is a crime," Pope Francis said after the books were published. "It is a deplorable act that does not help."

A new law had been approved by Francis that made taking, distributing, and publishing secret Vatican documents a crime in the Vatican City State. This law was in response to earlier leaks by the pope's butler and others during the papacy of Benedict XVI.

Also charged in the case were the alleged leakers:

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  • Francesca Chaouqui, a public relations specialist and a member of the former Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See
  • Msgr. Lucio Vallejo Balda, secretary of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, who admitted passing on the secret documents
  • Nicola Maio, who served as personal assistant to Monsignor Balda when he worked on the commission

They were accused of forming an "organized criminal association" with the aim of "committing several illegal acts of divulging news and documents concerning fundamental interests of the Holy See and (Vatican City) State."

From an American perspective, the trial was strange. Following Italian custom, the court had three judges, headed by Giuseppe Della Torre, but no jury. Judges can be very active in interrogating the accused and witnesses. There is no Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

In addition, the accused had lawyers appointed by the court. At the beginning of the trial, Catholic News Service reports that Vallejo Balda and Nuzzi asked to have their own lawyers represent them, but the court said no. Chaouqui was allowed to have a new lawyer when she objected to her original lawyer. 

Other procedures were equally strange. A two-finger typist recorded the proceedings into a computer as fast as he could during testimony. Sometimes he asked witnesses or judges to pause while he caught up. The chief judge sometimes repeated each question and the heart of the answer spoken in court, according to CNS, to ensure that the recorded answers were objective and pertinent to the question.

At the end of the day's session, the recorder then read his entire transcription to the court. The judges and lawyers would then discuss it, make corrections or clarifications, before it is entered into the record.

The process is mind numbing. The Vatican appears to be too cheap to pay for a professional transcriber.

And at the end of the trial, the prosecution admitted it had not proved its case against Fittipaldi and therefore asked the court to drop all charges against him. Why they did not recognize this from the very beginning is another mystery.

In examining the trial, it is important to distinguish between the journalists and the Vatican employees.

From the very beginning, the journalists argued that they were just doing their job and their prosecution was an infringement of freedom of the press. And as Italian citizens, they challenged the right of the Vatican to prosecute them.

"We are defending an Italian citizen who exercised his right to freedom of the press,” explained Nuzzi's lawyer.

Fittipaldi told CNS they were being tried "for simply asking questions."

"In America, the journalists of the Boston Globe asked questions and were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering important information on pedophilia [in the church] 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."

Frankly, I was surprised the reporters even showed up in court, since the Vatican could not send the Swiss Guard into Italy to force them to attend. Perhaps they came because they correctly judged that the publicity around the trial would help sell their books.

Nuzzi testified that he and Vallejo Balda were brought together by Chaouqui, but she did not give him any documents. His description of her was not flattering, saying that she was "unreliable," "bi-polar," and prone "to creating a big mess."

His testimony against Vallejo Balda was damning, reporting that the monsignor gave him the password to his Vatican email account, which contained several secret documents. His testimony made little difference, since Vallejo Balda had already confessed. Nuzzi refused to give up the name of his source of an audio recording of Pope Francis at a finance meeting.

Fittipaldi, on the other hand, said that he had almost finished his book by the time he received the documents and only used two of them: a semi-official budget of the Institute for the Works of Religion, commonly known as the Vatican bank, and a letter signed by Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy.

The trial began in late November and, with numerous interruptions and delays, did not conclude until July 7, when the court finally decided that it had no legitimate jurisdiction over the journalists and they were protected by freedom of the press.

Again, such procedures leave Americans scratching their heads. In any U.S. court, the judge would have to rule on whether or not his court had jurisdiction before moving on with the case. Why waste all that time and money on a trial if the court has no jurisdiction?

Would there be any legitimate reason for hauling a journalist into court?

A legitimate case could be made against a journalist who used physical violence against an employee in order to get documents. The closest the case came to this was a vague threat from Chaouqui's husband, who emailed Vallejo Balda, "Be careful humiliating her because she can be dangerous given her contacts," but this email did not involve the documents but her not getting a job.

What about blackmail?

If a journalist had a photo of a Vatican monsignor dancing on a tabletop in a gay bar, the cleric might be blackmailed into giving inside information. Again, it was Chaouqui, not the journalists, who appeared to be threatening her colleague, Vallejo Balda: "I will destroy you in all the newspapers and you know that I can do it."

Bribing officials is another problem, although if every journalist who took a Vatican official to dinner were prosecuted, the Vatican press office would be empty.

In any case, none of this was ever alleged against the journalists. The court came to the right decision but the case should never have been brought to court.

In most situations, the proper way to deal with journalists is through their professional organizations, which might reprimand them for violating journalistic ethics, or through the Vatican press office, which can deny press privileges to offenders.

What about the employees?

Certainly any organization has the right to set its own rules about leaking documents to the press and public. If documents are leaked, employees can be disciplined and even fired. If trade secrets or proprietary information is stolen, that might involve a real crime.

If these leaked documents had belonged to a diocese, no one would have claimed a crime had been committed. Few people would have objected if these Vatican employees had simply been fired. Any organization could have done the same.

Here, however, the Vatican was not acting like any other organization, let alone a church. Rather, it was acting like a state where state secrets or national security is involved.

Does the leaking an internal report on financial mismanagement threaten the national security of the Vatican City State or the Holy See? No. Let's be honest. It is simply embarrassing. In fact, it is not even embarrassing because it showed that the Vatican was actually trying to clean up its finances.

Could there be leaks that are truly criminal?

Certainly, for example, any leaking of plans dealing with the security of the pope or the Vatican would be criminal. Leaking of delicate diplomatic negotiations could be criminal if it put lives at risk in some countries. Even leaking of confidential bids in a completive bidding process might also be a crime if it allowed a bidder to cheat the Vatican on a contract.

But none of this was involved in this case. Vatican officials were upset because a report they wanted to keep confidential was made public.

The court found Monsignor Vallejo Balda guilty of stealing and passing on secret documents to the journalists. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail, a ridiculous penalty, but less than the three years and one month requested by the lead prosecutor, Giampiero Milano. Vallejo Balda should have simply lost his monsignor title and been fired and banished from Rome. Most observers expect Francis to pardon him just as Benedict pardoned his butler.

Vallejo Balda's former assistant, Maio, was found not guilty on all charges, although the prosecutor had asked for a sentence of one year and nine months.

The prosecutor asked the court to impose the greatest punishment -- three years and nine months -- on Chaouqui, who he said "inspired and is responsible for the alleged conduct." Emanuela Bellardini, Vallejo Balda's lawyer, painted her as a femme fatale who was responsible for the whole affair.

But since Chaouqui gave birth to a baby during the trial, no one expected her to do jail time. Having the Vatican put a new mother in jail would have been a PR disaster. The court found her guilty of encouraging the leak and gave her a 10-month suspended sentence.

The final embarrassment from this case is that so far this is the only prosecution to come out of all of the financial scandals in the Vatican.

Last December, Moneyval, the international agency responsible for guarding against money laundering and the financing of terrorism, published its second progress report on Vatican finances. It found that the Vatican had made significant progress in addressing the technical deficiencies in its legislation and regulations. But it wondered why no criminals had yet been prosecuted even though investigations have taken place on money laundering involving "fraud, fiscal evasion, corruption, bankruptcy, insider trading, and market manipulation."

"There still remains, however, a continued lack of indictments for money laundering or for related serious proceeds-generating offenses," says Moneyval. "This situation needs to be improved." 

The Vatican's financial watchdog agency, the Financial Information Authority, has referred 17 reports to the Vatican's Office of the Promoter of Justice for possible criminal charges. Currently 11.2 million Euros in funds have been frozen as a result of these investigations. 

With all these cases to prosecute, why did the Vatican waste time on journalists and leakers? Do the crimes involve Vatican archbishops and cardinals, whom the Vatican does not want to prosecute? Are they afraid of scandal? We should have learned by now that the greater scandal is the cover-up.

[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 treesesj@ncronline.org.]

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