ROME — A trial against three former officials of a Vatican commission and two journalists, all accused of illegally obtaining and publishing documents revealing mismanagement of Church finances, resumed on Saturday with the first public hearings set for Monday and Tuesday.
Initially Vatican officials, including Pope Francis, had hoped the trial could be wrapped up quickly, before the pontiff’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 in November and resumed only this week.
On Saturday, the trial judge met with technical experts in a closed-doors session to examine the admissibility of new computer evidence. Monday and Tuesday’s hearings will be dedicated to witness testimony.
Although it hasn’t been specified who will take part, some top Vatican officials have been called to testify. They include Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state; Spanish Cardinal Santos Abril y Castelló, president of a commission working on the reform of the Institute for the Works of Religion, often referred to as the “Vatican bank,” and Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, head of papal charities.
The three-month adjournment was granted to allow computer experts to recover deleted e-mails, texts and WhatsApp messages from some of the accused parties.
The five defendants are:
- Spanish monsignor Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda, who served on a now-defunct financial reform commission — known by its Italian acronym COSEA — created by Pope Francis in 2013 to lay the groundwork for an overhaul of Vatican finances.
- Vallejo’s assistant, an Italian named Nicola Maio.
- Italian Francesca Chaouqui, an independent PR consultant who also worked on COSEA.
- Journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, author of “Via Crucis” (released in English as “Merchants in the Temple”). He’s also the journalist at the heart of the original Vatileaks affair under Pope Benedict XVI almost four years ago.
- Emiliano Fittipaldi, author of “Avarice: Papers that Reveal Wealth, Scandals and Secrets in the Church of Francis.”
All five have been charged under Section 9 of the Vatican’s “crimes against the security of the state” law. That section was amended by Pope Francis soon after his election to make the release of confidential information punishable by up to eight years in prison and a fine of roughly $5,500.
Vallejo, Chaoqui, and Maio also have been accused of forming a criminal organization to release the documents, while the two journalists were charged for allegedly using untoward means to obtain their information.
The two journalists have said that this is not a trial against them, but against freedom of the press, with Nuzzi calling the process “abnormal.”
The COSEA commission, on which Vallejo served as secretary and Chaoqui as a member, was dismantled after it delivered its final recommendations to the pontiff.
Two new offices were created as a result of its recommendation: the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, headed by Australian Cardinal George Pell, and the Council for the Economy, a supervisory board of cardinals and laypeople led by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich.
Neither Vallejo nor Chaoqui were named to any position in these new offices.
On Saturday, Chaoqui presented a letter she had written to Pope Francis to the judge, asking to be relieved of the “pontifical secrecy” she agreed to as a member of COSEA in order to be able to properly defend herself. There was no immediate Vatican response to the request.
Vallejo was arrested last November, and is the only one of the five on trial who remains in prison. He had been placed under house arrest and was living at a residence inside the Vatican, but after breaking the conditions of his detention by communicating with someone on the outside, he was placed back into a Vatican jail cell last week.
The books published by Nuzzi and Fittipaldi, based on the confidential documents from COSEA, detail waste, mismanagement, and corruption at the Vatican, as well as the resistance Pope Francis faces in trying to clean it up.
Francis has referred to what is known as the “Vatileaks 2.0” scandal on various occasions, including at the end of a weekly Sunday Angelus prayer soon after the books came out.
“First off, I would to say that stealing documents is a crime. It’s a deplorable act that doesn’t help,” he said at the time, adding that the content of the leaked documents was not a surprise to him or his advisers, since he had asked for the information to assess it and make changes.
The breach of confidence, he said, wasn’t going to deter the reforms.
Observers have pointed out that if the five accused are found guilty by the Vatican tribunal headed by jurist Giuseppe Dalla Torre, the pope could set aside a conviction with a gesture of mercy.
Benedict XVI did so in 2012, after his butler was found guilty of stealing documents and giving them to Nuzzi. Chaoqui told Crux in January that she will not accept a papal pardon; she wants to be declared guilty or innocent.
“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,” she said.
Observers say Francis also could choose to respect the outcome of the trial, among other things as a warning to anyone who believes that leaking confidential Vatican documents has no consequence.