ROME — An Italian journalist who allegedly received confidential documents from two members of a now-expired papal study commission on Vatican finances has described the arrest of those figures by Vatican gendarmes as “abnormal,” claiming it’s an effort to obscure the content of his revelations.
It was “an attempt [from the Vatican] to divert attention from the actual issues covered on my book, that are based on documents,” Gianluigi Nuzzi, author of a new book revealing financial abuses in the Vatican, said Wednesday in a Rome news conference.
On Monday, the Vatican announced that Spanish Monsignor Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda and Italian lay woman Francesca Chaouqui had been interrogated and then placed under arrest on suspicion of having leaked secret material to Nuzzi, author of Via Crucis (in English, “Merchants in the Temple.”)
Both Vallejo and Chaouqui were members of a commission, known by its Italian acronym COSEA, established in the summer of 2013 by Pope Francis to lay the groundwork for his efforts at financial reform in the Vatican.
Chaouqui was released after her arrest and she has pledged her innocence, while Vallejo remains in Vatican custody.
Nuzzi did not confirm on Wednesday that either Vallejo or Chaouqui were among his sources, but said he found their arrests troubling.
“I’m a journalist, and to see the hands of a priest in handcuffs as a response to a book that’s to be published … it’s an abnormal response,” he said.
“I won’t say anything about my sources, because they’re protected, but to call them crows is unfair,” Nuzzi said, referring to a derogatory Italian term for people who leak information maliciously.
He also defended his decision to print confidential material.
“From a Vatican perspective, violating secrets is a crime,” he said. “From the perspective of an Italian journalist, there’s a duty and an obligation to break news previously unknown.”
Under the laws of the Vatican City State, the disclosure of private documents is a crime since 2013, when Francis introduced it as a felony that affects the security of the state.
A Vatican spokesman said Wednesday that most of the information contained in the books is already public, and that they serve to demonstrate how much Francis has done to improve financial operations.
According to the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the information published by Nuzzi and another Italian journalist, Emiliano Fittipaldi in a second book called Avarizia (“Avarice”), was only collected in the first place because Francis set up a commission to get to the bottom of what was really going on.
“Therefore, it’s not about information obtained originally against the pope’s will or of those responsible for the various institutions, but generally of information obtained or given with the collaboration of these institutions to contribute to the common good,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi said Francis and his aides are well aware of the challenges they face, but that they’re “serene” with what lies ahead.
“In the Vatican, the reality is well known, as are the challenges, with no need for the books from Nuzzi and Fittipaldi,” Lombardi said.
Nuzzi is the journalist who, three years ago, triggered the original “Vatileaks” scandal by releasing secret files given him by former papal butler Paolo Gabriele. His new book is based on documentation gathered by COSEA in 2013 and 2014, before it was dismantled by the pontiff.
Nuzzi claims to have had access to minutes of Vatican meetings, account information from the Vatican bank, and a recording of a meeting between Pope Francis and several members of the curia. In general, he tells a story of a chaotic and sometimes dysfunctional financial landscape inside the Vatican, with reformers facing stiff resistance at efforts to turn things around.
As Nuzzi tells it, in 2013 the pontiff told the cardinals, “It is no exaggeration to say that most of our costs are out of control. This is a fact.” Nuzzi also quotes Francis urging prelates to always double check the “fine print” when signing contracts, to guarantee the legality of each transaction.
Nuzzi claims that during their work, a group of auditors formed by COSEA “realized that the transparency and efficiency regulations introduced by Benedict XVI and Francis were being disregarded, from the smallest to the largest cases.”
In his Wednesday news conference, Nuzzi said one of the most revealing elements of the book concerns money donated to the Vatican by ordinary believers around the world in an annual collection called “Peter’s Pence,” which is billed as a way to support papal charities.
Nuzzi said those funds are instead largely used to cover Vatican deficits.
“Out of every 10 euros that come into the Vatican for the pope’s charity,” Nuzzi told reporters, “six go to balance the accounts of the curia, two are deposited as reserves in a fund that today is up to almost 400 million euros, and only two end up in the pope’s hand to do charity.”
In a written statement on Wednesday, Lombardi said that the “Peter’s Pence” fund has various objectives, and that the pope can use this money as he sees fit.
“The works of charity from the pope to the poor are certainly one of the essential purposes [of the collection], but it’s not the intention of the faithful [who donate money] to rule out that the pope himself assesses the urgency of the situation and the way to respond,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi insisted that the push for good administration and transparency in the Vatican continues, as “is evidently the will of Pope Francis.”