ROME — In a Christmas audience with Vatican employees and their families on Monday, Pope Francis issued an unusually blunt mea culpa: “I want to apologize for the scandals that there were in the Vatican,” he said, referring to 2015.
He didn’t say which scandals he meant, and people from the United States or other parts of the world might wonder, since there have been more than a few: A former Vatican official who came out as openly gay, a former papal envoy accused of sex abuse who died under what some see as mysterious circumstances before he could be put on trial, and so on.
In Italy, however, no one is asking that question, because virtually everyone here assumes they know exactly what Francis had in mind: “Vatileaks 2.0.”
The term refers to the sensation that broke out in early November when two Italian journalists, Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, simultaneously published books exposing various financial meltdowns, based in part on leaked documents from a study commission set up by Pope Francis shortly after his election to prepare the basis for reform.
In short order, three former Vatican insiders were charged with crimes under Vatican law for leaking those documents, and the two journalists were charged for pressuring them to do so.
Presumably, most people who follow Church affairs know that much. If you haven’t been following the story in detail, however, you’re missing out, because it’s already had more twists than a daytime soap opera.
Here’s probably the most sensational example: One of the accused insiders, Spanish Monsignor Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda, has claimed that another of the accused, Italian PR expert Francesca Chaouqui, seduced him in a Florence hotel room after supposedly telling him that her husband is a secret agent and their marriage is a cover. Adding another dash of spice, hotel personnel supposedly found a baby doll belonging to Chaouqui in Vallejo Balda’s room the next day.
Chaouqui has dismissed claims of such a tryst as the “delusions of a madman.” (For the record, she says she and her husband are expecting a child in July.) She also has repeatedly, and strenuously, denied leaking documents.
Before getting to the heart of the matter, let’s briefly recap where things stand.
Initially, Vatican officials, up to and including the pope, hoped the criminal trial could be wrapped up before Dec. 8, when the jubilee Year of Mercy began. In the back of their minds was probably the first Vatileaks affair in 2012, when the trial of the ex-papal butler accused of leaking documents belonging to Pope Benedict XVI took less than a week.
This one, however, doesn’t look like it will be so easy.
There are five defendants this time, not one, and unlike Paolo Gabriele in 2012, none seems prepared to go quietly. In a court hearing Dec. 7, a three-judge panel agreed to various defense requests that will have the effect of postponing the resumption of the trial for some time.
Nuzzi said Tuesday he’s been told the next hearing won’t take place until after Feb. 20.
One of the requests was for a technical evaluation of messages among Vallejo Balda, Chaouqui, and Nicola Maio, the third accused insider, who was Balda’s secretary. (Some of those messages apparently utilized the mobile messaging tool WhatsApp, which is terra incognita to most in the Vatican.)
Another request was to call various Vatican heavyweights as witnesses, including the secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin — who wasn’t even in Rome when the study commission was active because he was still the papal envoy in Venezuela — and Spanish Cardinal Santos Abril y Castello, the president of a commission of cardinals overseeing the Vatican bank, as well as Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, who runs the pope’s personal charities.
What any might have to say that’s relevant to the case remains to be seen, but no doubt it would be entertaining to have them in the dock. (Parolin has been told he can submit a written statement.)
In other words, the process has the makings of a potential circus.
Precisely because the details are so juicy, there’s a danger of losing sight of the forest for the trees. Let’s step back and recall two points about the big picture.
1. In terms of content, this scandal is more whimper than bang.
Neither of the two books added much to the record that wasn’t already known: cardinals living in swanky apartments, money being used to influence sainthood causes, all kinds of people who aren’t supposed to getting access to low-costs goods in the Vatican such as tobacco and gas, and so on. The problem has never been identifying the various ways in which money is used and abused; the problem has been fixing it.
Moreover, for once this is not a case of an institution trying to hide its dirty laundry. The commission whose documents were leaked was created by Francis in 2013 for the express purpose of documenting financial misconduct so it could be remedied by his new financial structures.
Generally, scandals trigger reform. This is the rare case of it working the other way around, with the reform actually triggering the scandal. Nuzzi and Fittipaldi didn’t give us Pope Francis’ clean-up; the clean-up gave us Nuzzi and Fittipaldi.
Speaking on the Italian TV network La7 on Tuesday night, Nuzzi made the point that although this information was known to the pope and a handful of insiders, it wasn’t to the general public, and since the Vatican depends on offerings from Catholics around the world, those people have a right to know how their money is being used.
“The time has come for all Catholics to have a legitimate awareness of how the Vatican is administered, in transparency,” Nuzzi said.
However, transparency was already the direction in which things were moving. Look at the detailed, independently audited annual financial statement produced today by the Vatican bank and compare it to the paltry information released just a few years ago, a change that happened well before these books were in the works.
At best, Vatileaks 2.0 may have given reformers additional impetus — at worst, it may be creating a series of distractions that’s slowing them down.
2. No matter what happens with the Vatileaks trial, it’s not the real test of reform.
One of the more persuasive pieces of commentary since the scandal broke came Tuesday on, of all places, Chaouqui’s Facebook page. She noted that in a recent interview, the head of the Vatican’s financial watchdog unit said his office so far has referred 30 cases to Vatican prosecutors for investigation on suspicions of illegal financial activity.
To date, Chaouqui noted, not a single one of those investigations has produced any indictments, while it certainly didn’t take prosecutors long to charge her.
“Why are we in the dock, journalists included, while those who steal millions are free?” Chaouqui asked. “Why is their image safe, while I have to defend mine? Is this reform?”
That might be written off as the self-justifying claim of a criminal defendant, except she’s not the only one saying it.
Recently, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency, Moneyval, issued what amounts to a mid-term report on Vatican reform. While praising the overhaul of Vatican legal structures, Moneyval said that to date there have been “no real results” in terms of prosecutions of financial crimes by Vatican law enforcement or confiscations of assets.
“All in all, the basically sound legal structure that has been put in place … now needs to deliver some real results on the prosecutorial side in the Holy See and the Vatican City State,” the evaluators concluded.
They also suggested that Vatican officials need to be sure that the gendarmes, its main police force, and the Promoter of Justice, its prosecutor, are up to the job.
Accountability for financial criminals — especially if they come from the senior ranks of the Vatican’s power structure — will be the acid test of whether reform is more than cosmetic, and nothing about the Vatileaks trial bears on it one way or the other except as a drain on limited resources.
So what’s a pope to do?
In trying to resolve this mess, Pope Francis faces a real dilemma.
He’s the one who, in July 2013, created sanctions for the crime of stealing and publishing Vatican documents. If he calls off the first effort to make them stick, he might as well wave a white flag on the whole idea of confidentiality. Moreover, his watchword is supposedly transparency, and if he’s perceived to be short-circuiting a trial before more secrets can emerge, it might not seem terribly transparent.
On the other hand, if the trial shapes up as an embarrassing distraction from the real work of reform, then a pope who just two days ago vowed that reform will move forward “with determination, clarity, and firm resolve,” may feel obligated to do something.
Perhaps the Year of Mercy gives Francis an out.
Given that he’s actually the injured party — the leaked documents, after all, ultimately belonged to him — he could decide to grant a pardon to all five defendants before the fact, while encouraging Vatican police, prosecutors, and judges to devote their energies to other cases.
(With the journalists, doing so might simply get a jump on the inevitable. Even if they’re found guilty, Vatican officials would have to request extradition from Italy to actually imprison them, and few think that’s realistic. As a result, the worst outcome would probably be a largely symbolic suspended sentence.)
A pardon might not be a complete fix, since Chaouqui, for her part, has said she has no interest in one. She wants a Vatican court to declare her not guilty — and, failing that, she wants them to take responsibility for sending an innocent person to jail.
However much some might object, a preemptive pardon might be the pope’s only exit strategy. Between now and late February, we should find out if he’s inclined to take it.