ROME — In an ideal world, doing the just thing and doing the wise thing would always coincide. Real life, however, is often not that simple, and the “Vatileaks 2.0” trial currently playing out in Rome may be a classic case where justice and wisdom collide.
To recap, the trial pivots on five people accused of stealing and publishing secret Vatican documents about finances, including three former members of a papal commission known by its Italian acronym COSEA and two journalists. If convicted, the defendants could face up to eight years in prison, although it’s not entirely clear how that sentence could be enforced on those who are Italian citizens and neither clergy nor employees of the Vatican.
Just like the first Vatileaks affair under Pope Benedict XVI four years ago, this one seems more of a soap opera with every passing day.
This week, testimony in the trial resumed after it was suspended in November. Day one featured an admission by Spanish Monsignor Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda that he did, indeed, pass documents to journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, including a set of 87 computer passwords that allowed Nuzzi to access the material.
Vallejo Balda insisted that he acted under “enormous pressure” from his alleged co-conspirator, PR expert Francesca Chaouqui, who supposedly convinced him that she was connected to the Italian secret service, and also supposedly once told him that the only force that could help him was the Mafia.
Chaouqui, by the way, is pregnant, and has vowed that she either wants to be acquitted on all counts or sent to prison to have her child there.
Let’s be clear that at least one real crime has been committed here, now acknowledged by Vallejo. If the original indictment is correct, perhaps other crimes were as well, either by Chaouqui or one or both of the two journalists.
(In a thick irony, Nuzzi missed the first couple of days of the resumed trial because he was busy being convicted in an Italian court on unrelated charges of calumny with regard to a 2010 exposé involving a supermarket chain.)
The strict interests of justice thus would say that the trial must go ahead, wrongdoing must be exposed, and if guilty, the defendants must be convicted and serve their full sentences — both for purposes of accountability, and also as a warning to others who might be tempted to commit the same offenses.
On the other hand, there’s real motive for doubt about whether that’s also the wise thing to do.
For one thing, prosecuting people for leaking these documents inevitably makes it look as if the Vatican has something to hide. In truth, the work of the COSEA commission amounts to a good-news story for the Vatican, providing a snapshot of a long-overdue reform in process.
It’s not as if the financial situations described in the documents amount to some sort of thunderclap revelation — 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.
At most, the COSEA reports add fresh details to a big picture that was already well known.
More importantly, the reason COSEA collected those details in the first place is because Pope Francis asked them to, as a prelude to reform. The pontiff has created a series of new structures to clean things up, and several of the breakdowns described have been addressed already.
To be frank, it’s not clear why the COSEA report, delivered to Pope Francis in 2014, wasn’t made public immediately. In any event, creating the impression that its release is damaging sends a dubious signal, when the message ought to be that airing such dirty laundry is an important step on the path to transparency.
Beyond that, the prosecutions also have the effect of making media darlings of their protagonists.
In terms of Chaouqui, aside from the questionable optics of sending a pregnant woman to prison, she actually seems to desire that outcome. She told Crux in January she’s planning to write a book from prison, and likely would be in a position to make a career out of the experience.
Chaouqui’s appeal as a media figure is closely linked to her association with a Vatican scandal, and if that were to disappear, arguably so, too, would much of her visibility.
A similar point applies to Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, the other journalist involved, whose books have received a new lease on life from the trial and presumably would reap another boon from a conviction. They’ve become ubiquitous in the Italian media, styling the entire prosecution as an assault on freedom of the press.
If Chaouqui, Nuzzi, and Fittipaldi are cut loose, then the argument for presenting themselves as martyrs would vanish.
(As a footnote, Chaouqui has said she won’t accept a pardon, but that’s not really up to her. After all, you can’t just book a cell in a Vatican jail; they have to want to let you in.)
There’s also a question of allocation of resources. Italian commentators have noted the contrast between six Vatican magistrates, including four judges and two prosecutors, devoting their energies for months to this trial while there’s a serious backlog of cases at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith involving sexual abuse offenses, in part because judges there are overworked.
Granted, one thing is not directly related to the other, but the juxtaposition does seem to raise legitimate questions about priorities.
In the end, one probably can’t fault the Vatican for seeking to uphold the demands of justice. One may wonder, however, if whatever victory prosecutors might obtain will turn out to be mostly Pyrrhic.