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Vatican Judges Weigh Fate of Five Accused in Leaks Scandal

  • Associated Press

Journalists Emiliano Fittipaldi (R) and Gianluigi Nuzzi talk to reporters as they leave the Vatican at the end of their trial, in Rome, Italy, July 7, 2016.

Journalists Emiliano Fittipaldi (R) and Gianluigi Nuzzi talk to reporters as they leave the Vatican at the end of their trial, in Rome, Italy, July 7, 2016.

A Vatican tribunal on Thursday began deliberating the fate of five people, including two journalists, accused in the publication of confidential Vatican documents that exposed greed, mismanagement and corruption in the Holy See.

The journalists have denounced the Vatican for putting them on trial rather than the priests and laymen whose wrongdoing they uncovered, calling the trial a "farce" since prosecutors were accusing them of being part of a criminal conspiracy by their mere "availability" to receive information.

"Five-hundred pages of news about Vatican financial scandals, where not even one bit of news, not one page, not even a single line has been denied," journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi wrote on his Facebook page Thursday. "It's therefore a trial against the freedom of information."

The judges are expected to return a verdict within hours.

In a final, tearful statement, the woman at the heart of the scandal, Francesca Chaouqui, admitted she had made mistakes and that she has a strong, proud personality. But Chaouqui, an Italian communications expert who was brought in to work on a Vatican reform panel, has denied that she ever passed confidential documents to journalists and vowed to go to jail with her newborn if convicted.

"If the court asks Italy to put this sentence into effect, we will pass our first years in jail," Chaouqui told the court, with baby Pietro in a side room with his father.

Chaouqui, a Vatican monsignor and his secretary are accused by the Vatican of forming a criminal organization and leaking confidential documents. They were part of a pontifical panel tasked with acquiring information about the Holy See's finances and proposing recommendations to make them more transparent and efficient.

Fittipaldi and Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi wrote blockbuster books last year based on the commission's documentation exposing the greed of bishops and cardinals angling for big apartments, the extraordinarily high costs of getting a saint made and the loss to the Holy See of millions of euros in rental income because of undervalued real estate.

Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda, the reform commission's No. 2, admitted in court that he gave Nuzzi 85 passwords to password-protected documents, but said he did so because he felt pressure to turn them over. He denied that the journalists themselves threatened or pressured him, and pointed the blame on Chaouqui.

The journalists are accused of conspiracy in publishing the news. Publishing confidential information is a crime in the Vatican, punishable by up to eight years in prison. The journalists are Italian, and have challenged the Vatican's jurisdiction to prosecute them, since the alleged crime took place in Italy. But the Vatican asserts universal jurisdiction over foreigners if the purported crime threatens its fundamental interests.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and other media watchdog organizations have criticized the trial and called on the Vatican to drop the charges, saying journalists must be allowed to do their jobs without fear of repercussions.

In their closing arguments, prosecutors insisted they weren't putting the freedom of the press on trial. Prosecutor Roberto Zannotti argued that the journalists' "availability and presence" created the "psychological impulse" that "reinforced the will of those who divulged the information to reveal their news."

That argument met with swift ridicule on the front pages of La Repubblica newspaper, which is owned by the L'Espresso group for whom Fittipaldi works.

"In this case, there's no calumny, defamation or disinformation: there's an inconvenient truth that someone inside the Vatican wanted to get out," wrote Ezio Mauro, until recently Repubblica's longtime editor-in-chief. "There's a surreal case of a `psychological impulse' that's been transformed into an accusation."

The case has had several surreal moments: At its start, the journalists complained of a "Kafkaesque" trial given they had only seen the court file a few hours before the first hearing.

Then Pope Francis, the Vatican's supreme legislator, executive and judge, intervened to insist that the defense be given more time after the court tried to rush the trial through in two weeks. Eight months later, it finally finished.

Then Vallejo was put back under house arrest after a friend sneaked a cellphone to him inside a cake. Finally baby Pietro was born on June 14. Chaouqui has brought him to the courthouse each day since.

To date, the only criminal investigation that has been opened stemming from the journalists' work concerned the transfer of some 400,000 euros ($444,000) from the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu hospital to pay for renovations on the attic of the Vatican's former No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

The hospital's former president and treasurer are under investigation by Vatican prosecutors. Bertone has said he was unaware of the payment but has nevertheless repaid the hospital 150,000 euros ($166,000). He was not put under investigation.

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