Vatican court sentences monsignor to 18 months in ‘Vatileaks’ case

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Italian public relations expert Francesca Chaouqui looks on as she leaves the Vatican at the end of her trial, in Rome, on July 7, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-VATICAN-LEAKS, originally transmitted on July 7, 2016.

Italian public relations expert Francesca Chaouqui looks on as she leaves the Vatican at the end of her trial, in Rome, on July 7, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-VATICAN-LEAKS, originally transmitted on July 7, 2016.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) A Vatican court on Thursday (July 7) convicted two people for leaking confidential documents to journalists, concluding a high-profile trial that had underscored the internal dysfunction that Pope Francis has been trying to end.

Eight months after the “Vatileaks II” scandal erupted and exposed secrecy and widespread mismanagement at the Holy See, the Vatican court ruled that a Spanish priest should be jailed for passing information to reporters.

Monsignor Angel Lucio Vallejo Balda, who had worked in the Vatican’s economic affairs office, was ordered to serve 18 months in a Vatican jail.

A co-defendant, Francesca Chaouqui, who is an Italian public relations adviser, was given a 10-month suspended sentence. The prosecution had asked for three years and nine months for Chaouqui and three years and one month for Vallejo.

The journalists at the center of the scandal, Emiliano Fittipaldi and Gianluigi Nuzzi, were not convicted as the court ruled it did not have jurisdiction over them.

Journalists Emiliano Fittipaldi, right, and Gianluigi Nuzzi smile as they leave the Vatican at the end of their trial, in Rome, Italy, on July 7, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-VATICAN-LEAKS, originally transmitted on July 7, 2016.

Journalists Emiliano Fittipaldi, right, and Gianluigi Nuzzi smile as they leave the Vatican at the end of their trial, in Rome,  on July 7, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-VATICAN-LEAKS, originally transmitted on July 7, 2016.

The only one of five accused to be fully acquitted was Nicola Maio, the priest’s assistant.

After the verdicts, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the trial was necessary in order to uphold the law. Although the journalists were not convicted, he remained critical of decisions to publish leaked information on the Vatican.

“This is a ‘sickness’, as Pope Francis would say, to fight with determination,” Lombardi said in a statement.

In a trial that has captivated Vatican watchers, Vallejo confessed to handing over secret documents that detailed Pope Francis’ efforts to transform the workings of the Holy See.

The priest was appointed in 2013 to a papal commission to study reforms spearheaded by Francis. In something of a surprise, Chaouqui was also appointed.

The laywoman proclaimed her innocence throughout the trial and said that if she was convicted she would take her newborn baby, Pietro, to jail rather than ask for a papal pardon.

She denied allegations by Vallejo that she was involved in the Italian secret service or that she had claimed to have mafia contacts.

Chaouqui was the only defendant to address the court on Thursday, and Catholic News Service reported that she apologized for outbursts she made during the trial.

“I am a person who, at times, is unable to keep quiet. I am proud, angry and have a character that has sometimes led me to make mistakes,” she said, according to CNS.

“For me these months have been a Calvary,” said a tearful Chaouqui. “No punishment is greater than what I have been through up until now.”

Vallejo claimed he was pressured by Chaouqui to feed confidential documents to journalists and feared the consequences if he did not obey, accusations denied by the Italian PR executive.

Evidence in the case included emails and WhatsApp messages, including one from Chaouqui to Vallejo in which she told him she would “destroy you in all the newspapers.”

During the trial, Fittipaldi and Nuzzi asserted their right as journalists to publish leaked information, a viewpoint shared by press freedom groups. Their inclusion in the trial followed the approval in 2013 of strict Vatican laws against leaking documents, under which reporters can be prosecuted.

Nuzzi was involved in an earlier “Vatileaks” scandal, after he published private papers of Pope Benedict XVI, who later retired in part because of the internal challenges he faced.

The pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was convicted over the leaks but pardoned by Benedict after serving two months in jail.

Pope Francis could choose to pardon Vallejo and Chaouqui, although Lombardi would not be drawn out on the likelihood of the pontiff making such a move.

(Rosie Scammell covers the Vatican for RNS)