ROME – What is probably the Vatican’s highest stakes trial yet began this week, featuring a cast of both new and familiar characters being indicted for an array of financial crimes.
However, a surprising face reappeared on the sidelines.
For those who followed the 2015-2016 “Vatieaks 2” saga, which culminated with four people being charged over the leak of confidential Vatican financial documents, the name Francesca Immaculata Chaouqui ought to sound familiar.
A lay Italian public relations official who served as a consultant to a papal commission studying Vatican reform, Chaouqui was accused of leaking the confidential documents to journalists in tandem with a Spanish monsignor who led the group.
In July 2016, she was convicted and slapped with a suspended 10-month jail sentence.
As the 2016 trial played out, Chaouqui emerged as one of the leading characters in the drama. She was a bold, attractive young woman, and the press couldn’t get enough.
Despite her fall from grace, she has reappeared on the scene of the Vatican’s so-called “trial of the century,” and now finds herself facing further legal action.
The mega-trial that opened earlier this week with a July 27 hearing features fraud and embezzlement charges against Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu and nine other individuals, marking the first time someone with a red hat has ever been indicted by the Vatican’s court.
Adjourned until Oct. 5, the trial will likely be a lengthy process, dragging through most of the fall, if not beyond.
Ever since the charges and date of the beginning of the mega-trial were announced at the beginning of this month, Chaouqui made her entry on scene, making various public remarks both on her personal blog and in media interviews, accusing Becciu of various forms of misconduct.
Becciu initially said he was threatening legal charges last month over a June 18 blog post, which has since disappeared.
In a statement at the time, Becciu’s lawyer, Fabio Viglione, said a lawsuit would be made against Chaouqui over the post, arguing that, “Even the fullest freedom of expression finds an insurmountable limit in respect for the truth and the integrity of others.”
“Cardinal Becciu, on the strength of the full institutional correctness of his work, cannot allow distortions and falsifications of reality, seriously damaging his reputation. For this reason, he is forced, once again, to protect his person in the competent judicial offices.”
Yet that threat apparently had little effect, as Chaouqui, despite taking down the blog post, has given several interviews implying Becciu was a dirty player, acting on behalf of the pope without his approval, and using his ties to journalists to discredit his enemies.
The most prominent interview was given to Italian weekly magazine Panorama, which was published July 14.
In her interview, Chaouqui insisted Becciu is “a very intelligent person, fast and practical, with a capacity to work 15 consecutive hours and to make himself loved by his colleagues.”
“This quality was appreciated by the pope, who created a relationship of total trust with him,” she said, adding, “It’s a shame that Becciu used that affection to serve his own ambition.”
Chaouqui said she had never met someone as skillful as Becciu in creating networks of relationships, but she argued that he used these skills to create the false impression that he was closer to the pope than the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and his boss, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
She said Becciu would do small things to earn trust and improve his image, such as organize lunches for the pope at his personal Vatican apartment whenever the pope came back from a foreign trip.
“A select group of people were admitted” to those lunches, including politicians, journalists, businessmen, and magistrates, Chaouqui said, adding, “It was many people’s ambition to get into that tight circle.”
She said Becciu also took several actions on behalf of the pope, but which the pope likely was unaware of, such as authorizing an investment into the cinematic biography of Elton John.
Chaouqui also spoke of the one woman charged in the Becciu case, Italian Cecilia Marogna.
Marogna was hired by the Vatican in 2016 as an external security consultant. Known in the press as the “dame” of Becciu, prosecutors accuse her of having stolen €575,000 ($683,000) in Vatican funds Becciu had made available to her for the ransoms of some Catholic hostages in the Middle East and Africa. However, bank records show that Vatican money transfers were used to pay bills in shops, boutique hotels, and to purchase luxury goods.
Chaouqui said that despite Becciu’s insistence that the pope knew of Marogna’s presence at the Vatican, she doesn’t believe it, and accused Becciu of attempting to establish a “parallel intelligence” unit within the Vatican under the guise of rescuing hostages, with Becciu at the top.
However, she sympathized with Marogna, saying Becciu “was convinced that he found his personal Mata Hari, a woman who could be his eyes and ears in different environments and in civilian clothes, and on the other hand she was fascinated by a pass that transformed her from a telephone saleswoman in Sardinia to a diplomat under the cover of the Vatican.”
Chaouqui said she doesn’t believe anything untoward happened between the two, as has been implied in the Italian press, adding, “I know what it means to be a woman in a world of men, and the rumors that this can happen.”
She also accused Becciu of using journalists to both defame his perceived enemies, and to dismantle accusations against him.
After she was named as a member of COSEA, the commission evaluating the reform of the Vatican’s finances, Chaouqui said an article appeared in a newspaper titled, “A Sexy Bomb that Embarrasses the Vatican,” and which used pictures from her social media profile portraying her “as a non-serious person with a husband who wasn’t mine.”
She said she was “certain” that Becciu commissioned the article and many other slanderous articles on Vatican personalities over the years, but was protected because “every journalist defends their sources and Becciu was a source for many.”
Chaouqui said she feared for herself and her family right after Becciu’s forced retirement, saying, “A person destroyed by pain like the cardinal was in that moment is not lucid … He attributed responsibility to me that I didn’t have.”
“Today I have not only forgiven him, but humanely I have compassion for him,” she said, adding, “If he hadn’t made the mistakes he did, I can ensure you that he would have been the next pope.”
Becciu, who has maintained his innocence from the beginning, told journalists at the close of Tuesday’s hearing that he was confident he would be found innocent, and that he had decided to press charges against Chaouqui for defamation over not only her comments in the media, but remarks she apparently made as part of the investigation into Becciu.
“I am calm, I feel calm in conscience, I trust that the judges will be able to see the facts well and my great hope is the certainty that they will recognize my innocence,” he said, adding that it is with “great sorrow” that he has decided to issue a complaint against Chaouqui and Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, one of Becciu’s former aides, “for slander for the serious falsehoods they said about me and that appeared in the trial documents.”
How all of this will play out remains to be seen, but if one thing is certain, it’s that we haven’t seen or heard the last of Chaouqui.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen