ROME — Sooner or later, it seems, every good cause in Catholicism gets its martyr.
St. Thomas More, for instance, is celebrated for his loyalty to the pope when England split from Rome in the 16th century, and more recently, Blessed Oscar Romero of El Salvador has become the patron saint of defending the poor.
Today, 34-year-old Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, the woman at the heart of a controversial Vatican criminal trial over leaks of secret documents, is volunteering for the role — in fact, she’s basically clamoring for it — of martyr for Pope Francis’ much-vaunted project of financial reform.
In her case, “martyrdom” doesn’t mean death, but accepting a prison sentence — theoretically as many as eight years, but more realistically probably closer to two or three — for allegedly leaking those documents, despite vehemently claiming she didn’t do it.
She says that perhaps only the spectacle of sending an innocent woman to jail, forcing her to give birth to the child she’s expecting behind bars, may jar the consciences of the Vatican’s old guard. She fully expects to be convicted, and says that under no circumstances will she ask for, or accept, a papal pardon.
“I believe that when someone in the Vatican realizes they have the responsibility for what they’ve done, then maybe they’ll feel obligated to clean things up and to put on trial the people who actually steal … who are guilty of extremely serious financial crimes,” she told Crux Monday.
One can regard her stance as noble, self-aggrandizing, delusional, or any number of other things, but it’s difficult to question Chaouqui’s resolve. In her Crux interview, she broke into tears describing one day having to explain to her son why he was born and baptized in prison.
For the record, she said she plans to name that son “Peter” in honor of the pope.
From afar, it may seem odd that Chaouqui, who has an Italian mother and a father of Moroccan origins, can blend such a bleak view of the Vatican with such fierce loyalty to the man who runs the place. This is Italy, however, where distinguishing between the pope and his court, generally admiring the former and ruing the latter, is standard fare.
As for the trial, Chaouqui believes everything from here on out is basically window dressing, because its real aim has already been achieved. She was always a target, she said, because the fresh layman’s perspective she represented while serving on a commission empaneled by Francis in 2013, independent from the Vatican’s traditional systems of patronage and back-scratching, was a threat to the bureaucracy’s grip on power.
“They’ve already won,” she said, referring to that bureaucracy, particularly the all-important Secretariat of State.
“It’s obvious that [no matter what happens] I can’t have any more responsibilities in the Curia, or enjoy the closeness I had before with the Holy Father,” she said. “Every door is closed.”
“To be appreciated in the Vatican, you’re supposed to kiss 20 pairs of slippers before you get to the pope,” she told Crux. “I never kissed anybody’s slippers.”
While there are many uncertainties about the affair that’s been dubbed “Vatileaks 2.0” in the Italian media, one thing that’s never been in any doubt is that Chaouqui is its most combustible personality.
She first burst into public consciousness back in 2013, shortly after Francis’ election, when she was named a member of a papal study commission, known by its Italian acronym COSEA, to look into Vatican finances and to lay the basis for a future reform.
A PR expert working at the time for the Italian branch of Ernst & Young financial consultants, she was brought in largely to offer advice on Vatican communications. Journalists were intrigued by the idea of an attractive laywoman in her early 30s wielding such influence in an environment normally dominated by elderly males, and began digging into her background.
They quickly discovered that her Twitter account contained several messages critical of the Vatican’s then-secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and favorable to an Italian journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi, who had published a book based on documents stolen from Pope Benedict XVI by his former butler. (That was the original “Vatileaks” affair in 2012.)
Reporters also found a few racy images of Chaouqui with her husband posted online, which led the Italian magazine Panorama to dub her the “sexy bombshell who embarrasses the Vatican.” From that point, she became a media sensation.
Flash forward to November 2015, when two explosive books appeared based, in part, on leaked documents from COSEA. The books detailed millions of euros in lost income from renting some Vatican real estate at below-market rates, missing inventory from the Vatican’s tax-free stores, as well as money being used to influence sainthood causes, and cardinals living in swanky apartments, much of which insiders already knew.
The Vatican launched an investigation, which quickly ended in three people connected to the commission — Chaouqui, Spanish Monsignor Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda, the secretary of COSEA, and Nicola Maio, an Italian layman who was an aide to Vallejo — being charged as the leakers.
The journalists who published the books, Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, were also charged for allegedly using untoward means to obtain their information.
Initially, Vatican officials hoped their trial could be wrapped up quickly, before the pope’s Holy Year of Mercy began on Dec. 8. After a slew of requests for expert analysis and witnesses from defense attorneys, however, the trial before a three-judge panel was suspended, and is now expected to resume sometime in late February or March.
Along the way, Chaouqui again became a magnet for tabloid-style rumors. At one point, the monsignor, Vallejo Balda, reportedly told his attorneys she had seduced him in a Florence hotel room — a claim that Chaouqui dismisses as “the delusions of a madman,” which she’s said many times before, and which she confirmed to Crux.
Meanwhile, Chaouqui is firing back with an almost daily torrent of tweets and Facebook posts in her defense, as well as a wide range of media interviews, including a press conference scheduled for later this week in her native region of Calabria.
“I’ll fight like a lion all the way to the end to bring the truth to light,” she told Crux, “but the problem is that the outcome of the trial has already been decided at a table someplace.”
“This isn’t a trial,” she said. “It’s a game.”
Looking back, she believes the die was cast from the moment Francis appointed her and the other members of the COSEA by bypassing the mandarins at the Secretariat of State, the traditional gatekeeper of access to the pope. That was something the system was never going to tolerate, she says, and going after her was the easiest way to make the point.
“Apart from the fact that bringing us in broke the rules, there was also the extraordinary fact that for the first time, laity entered into the sacred corridors, and for the first time, a woman like me,” she said.
“Of course, there are plenty of women in the Vatican, but I come from a different world … It was just completely outside their way of thinking.”
Chaouqui claims that when Vatican magistrates interrogated both her and Vallejo Balda, the monsignor not only admitted to having passed the documents to Nuzzi and Fittipaldi, but also conceded that Chaouqui had nothing to do with it. As a result, she’s convinced the charges against her are politically motivated.
“They’re completely indifferent to whether I’m innocent or not,” she said. “My indictment was a political act, not a juridical one.”
Her personal rapport with Francis, she said, was also key to the desire to make an example out of her.
“When I was on the commission, I saw him almost every day,” she said. “Beyond the professional level, it was a real relationship between a priest, even if he’s the pope, and a believer.”
At the beginning, she says, Francis was sold a bill of goods about the “overwhelming” evidence prosecutors claimed to have against her, but now she thinks he knows something isn’t right.
“The Holy Father, I believe, is asking himself an important question: Will it be a good image for the Holy See … because I’m only showing a little bit now, but by March, God willing, I’ll have a huge belly … will it be a good image to have a pregnant woman behind bars, especially one who’s already refused any sort of privilege if I’m found guilty?”
“I know Francis very well,” she said, “and if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that if he had seen the files [from the investigation], he would never have consented to my indictment. He has an incredible sense of justice, and he never would have agreed.”
Chaouqui said she has refused to request that her case be separated from Vallejo Balda, in part because she acknowledges introducing Nuzzi and Fittipaldi to him. She said she was simply trying to help Balda get to know reporters who cover Vatican finances, which is “hardly a crime,” but in any event she feels obligated to “take responsibility for what I did.”
Today, she’s challenging the Vatican court to either declare her innocent or send her to jail.
“If you’re going to take someone and destroy their public image, the Vatican must have the dignity to enforce its penalties,” she said. “If I have to put up with this suffering … and then they just call me ‘guilty but pardoned,’ or ‘guilty with a suspended sentence,’ I won’t accept it.”
If she does end up in jail, she confesses to being afraid — “of the solitude,” she said, and also the forced inactivity. To counteract it, she said, she plans to write a book while behind bars on courage and hope, because “to make the choices in life that I’ve made, you’ve got to have courage and hope.”
In the meantime, she says, her troubles haven’t put a dent in her ardent Catholic faith.
“It certainly won’t be these judges … who change my relationship with the Church and with God,” she said. “The Church is Jesus, the Church is life, and it’s the most beautiful thing I have.”
“I know perfectly well that if all this is happening, there’s a reason,” Chaouqui said. “You know what Mary said to the angel … ‘Let it be done to me according to your word’.”
“That’s my answer, too.”