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Vatican leaks trial: Would conviction create a legal farce?

The Vatican is taking heat for a trial in which two Italian journalists are among the defendants – and which pits Italian press freedoms against Vatican interests. 

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Journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi arrived at the Vatican for his trial, Monday. Two Italian journalists who wrote books detailing Vatican mismanagement face trial in a Vatican courtroom along with three others accused of leaking them the information.

Riccardo De Luca/AP

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The trial of three Vatican officials and two Italian journalists resumed Monday at a tribunal within the stone walls of this tiny city state in a case that uncomfortably pits the Holy See’s interests against Italian press freedoms.

One of the journalist defendants has decried the proceedings as Kafkaesque, and he and other commentators have even invoked the Inquisition.

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The two journalists are accused of procuring leaked confidential documents they used as the basis for two bombshell books published last month.

The books, one titled “Avarice” and the other “Merchants in the Temple,” described Vatican financial mismanagement, greed, and the misuse of funds, including the use of money from a charitable foundation to renovate a lavish penthouse apartment for a former Vatican secretary of State.

Also facing the pope’s judges are three Vatican officials accused of leaking the classified papers – a Spanish monsignor, his secretary, and a public relations expert who was hired by the Holy See to sit on a commission reviewing its finances.

The trial, the latest scandal to hit the pontificate of Pope Francis, opened two weeks ago and has human rights groups and media organizations up in arms. It also appears to run dramatically counter to the accountability and transparency that Francis has pushed for since being elected pontiff in March 2013.

The defendants are being prosecuted under a law that was rushed through under Francis in 2013, after a similar leaks scandal. The year before, Pope Benedict XVI’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, had been convicted of feeding confidential documents to the media, including to Gianluigi Nuzzi, one of the journalists caught up in the current scandal.

In a trial that lasted just a few days, Mr. Gabriele was sentenced to 18 months in prison. After a few weeks he was pardoned and released by Benedict, but banished from the Vatican forever.

This time, the Vatican accuses the defendants – Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda, his secretary, Nicola Maio, and Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, the public relations expert – with criminal conspiracy “to divulge information and documents concerning the fundamental interests of the Holy See and the [Vatican City] State.”

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The journalists – Mr. Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi – are accused of being part of “an operation to take advantage of a gravely illicit act of handing over confidential documentation.”

Jurisdiction at issue

The Vatican claims that they “solicited and applied pressure, especially on Vallejo Balda, to obtain secret documents and information.”

Vallejo was arrested last month and has been held in a cell in the barracks of the Vatican gendarmerie, its tiny police force, ever since. The rest are at liberty – for now.

If convicted, the defendants could be sentenced to up to eight years in prison. But that’s where it gets complicated.

Although they voluntarily turned up to the first hearing on Nov. 24, Nuzzi and Mr. Fittipaldi point out that they are Italian citizens and therefore not subject to Vatican jurisdiction.

They argue that they were simply doing their duty as investigative reporters and say it is absurd that they are being persecuted by the Vatican when it has apparently done nothing to censure the people behind the alleged financial abuses.

Vatican-approved lawyers

Fittipaldi stood up in court during the first hearing and denounced the trial as absurd. “I am incredulous in finding myself here as a defendant in a country that is not mine,” he said.

He said the trial contravened press freedoms that were enshrined in the Italian Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

He was not even able to defend himself properly, he complained, because the exact nature of the charges remained unclear.

The journalists were not allowed to appoint their own lawyers and were instead given lawyers approved by the Vatican, whom they met only hours before the first hearing began.

“I appeared in court because I wanted to look the judges in the eye. I have no fear, I have nothing to hide and I have committed no crime,” Nuzzi said.

Support for journalists

The trial, which is being presided over by four Vatican judges, without a jury, was condemned by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which said the Vatican should immediately drop the charges.

“Journalists should be allowed to carry out their role as watchdogs and investigate alleged wrongdoing without fear of repercussions,” said the organization’s Nina Ognianova.

It was also criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which said journalists should be able to protect confidential sources.

Roberto Zannotti, a Vatican prosecutor, denied that the Holy See was attacking press freedom.

It was not prosecuting “the publication of the documents, but the way in which they were acquired,” he said in court, alleging that the reporters had imposed undue pressure on their sources.

'Absurd consequences' of conviction

It is not clear what would happen if any of the five are convicted. The fate of the two journalists would be particularly problematic. The Italian Constitution enshrines the principle of press freedom and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.

The Vatican has no prison of its own but under accords signed with Italy it is entitled to request that convicted criminals should serve their time in an Italian jail.

That would raise the prospect of Italian citizens, convicted by the Vatican of an offense not recognized by Italy, being incarcerated on Italian soil.

Legal experts think it unlikely that Rome would accede to an extradition request from the Vatican.

That would herald an embarrassing diplomatic standoff between Italy and the Holy See.

“It is not acceptable that two Italian citizens, whose books were based on information that has never been denied by the Vatican and which were published in Italy, risk being jailed for up to eight years by a foreign power,” said an editorial in La Stampa, a respected Italian daily.

“If the trial results in convictions for the defendants, there will be truly farcical and absurd consequences.”

More leaks apparently feared

Pope Francis has consistently called for more openness and transparency within the Catholic hierarchy but has taken a hard line on this latest scandal.

He condemned the leaks as a “crime” and a “deplorable act” and it later emerged that he had personally authorized the arrests of the Spanish monsignor, his secretary, and the public relations manager.

The Vatican apparently felt compelled to act in order to frighten off other journalists looking for more leaks, analysts say.

But placing the journalists under investigation makes the Vatican look “medieval” and is likely to backfire, says Iacopo Scaramuzzi, an expert on the Vatican and the author of “Vatican Tango – the Church in the Age of Francis.”

“This will just give more publicity to the books and boost sales. It will have a boomerang effect,” he said.