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The Pope Has Opened the Church’s Jubilee Year — And Put Five People on ‘Medieval’ Trial

By Valerio Bassan

As it celebrates the holiest Catholic Church year since 2000, the Vatican is also trying Italian journalists, among others, for leaking information that led to two damaging books.

Pope Francis opened the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica, in the heart of Vatican City on Tuesday, giving his blessing to the biggest Roman Catholic event in 15 years — a year-long celebration known as the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

Surrounded by 50,000 faithful and pilgrims — as well as 2,000 police officers and soldiers, in a massive display of anti-terrorism security, including snipers on rooftops and a no-fly and no-drive zone in downtown Rome — the Argentinian pontiff Mario José Bergoglio, two years into a papacy dominated by the theme of reform, ushered in an important celebration for a church shaken by momentous events and scandals since the last jubilee in 2000.

Some of those scandals are at the core of a bizarre trial that began last week and is already shaking the foundations of the small, yet powerful, ecclesiastical state. In a Vatican court, just a short walk away from where the pope greeted his Jubilee flock, five defendants stand accused of leaking confidential papal documents whose contents revealed a world of corruption and of resistance to the new pope’s reform drive. Their crime is punishable, according to the law of the Holy See, with up to eight years in prison.

The only clergy member among the five is Monsignor Angel Vallejo Balda, formerly the secretary of the now-dissolved Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See or COSEA — a complicated name for the group appointed in 2013 by the pope to advise him on reforming the Church.

Balda is accused of having shared private documents without authorization, along with his personal assistant, Nicola Maio, and Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, a former public relations consultant. Balda, 54, and Chaouqui, 33, were arrested early last month by the Vatican’s own gendarmeria or police force.

The other defendants are the two Italian journalists who each wrote a book based on the leaked documents: Emiliano Fittipaldi, the author of Avarizia (“Greed”), and Gianluigi Nuzzi, who wrote Merchants in the Temple. Both books were published on the same day – November 5, just 72 hours after the arrests – and immediately went to the top of Italian bestseller lists.

The secret information disclosed by the reporters includes examples of mismanagement of charity funds; a slew of alleged financial wrongdoings by top Vatican authorities; pretty vivid tales of the lavish lifestyles of Church officials, including archbishops and cardinals; revelations about the allegedly questionable origins of the Vatican’s financial empire; and recordings of internal discussions showing the strenuous resistance of some parts of the clergy to the reform process begun by Bergoglio.

The trial is colloquially dubbed Vatileaks II by the media – an earlier Vatileaks trial took place in 2012 under the papacy of Benedict XVI, ending with the conviction, and subsequent papal pardon, of the pope’s own personal butler – and it will see some well-known figures summoned to testify in court. Among them are Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s second-in-command; two other high-ranking Vatican prelates; and famous journalist and writer Paolo Mieli, the former editor-in-chief of Corriere della Sera, Italy’s influential newspaper of record.

Italian journalists and writers Gianluigi Nuzzi (L) and Emiliano Fittipaldi arrive for the first day of the Vatileaks 2 trial in the Vatican, 24 November 2015. Photo by Ettore Ferrari/ANSA

The twist is that Italy is, in all this, literally a foreign country. The Vatican may be enclosed within Rome but it is, for all intents and purposes, a foreign government.

The heir of millennia of history as the earthly state of the Catholic Church, the Vatican exists in its current form since 1929, when Italy, under the Mussolini regime, recognized it as an independent state by signing the so-called Lateran Pacts. Most of Vatican law is still based on the Italian code of 1889, partially updated at various points in history — the last time in 2013.

Formally, the Vatican court is accusing the journalists, who are Italian and not Vatican citizens, of “soliciting and exercising pressure, especially on Vallejo Balda, in order to obtain confidential documents and information” while the member of the clergy, as long as Chaouqui, could be charged for “committing several illegal acts of divulging information and documents concerning fundamental interests of the Holy See and (Vatican) State.” Those crimes are punished, as established by the Vatican’s Law IX, article 10, with 4 to 8 years in prison.

If convicted, the defendants won’t be serving their sentence in the Vatican, though.

The last absolute monarchy by divine right on the face of the Earth has no prison system — just a few detention cells where people are held while waiting for their trials to start. Last year, when a Femen activist and a distraught business owner were arrested almost simultaneously for protesting in a disruptive manner, newspapers came up with sarcastic headlines about the risk of prison overcrowding in the Vatican. Convicted criminals serve their time in Italian jails, but their detention costs are covered by the papal state.

Curiously enough, a 109-acre (0.4 square km) microstate inhabited almost exclusively by Catholic males of a relatively advanced age is also one of the places with the highest crime rates in the world, with 341 civil and 486 criminal cases recorded in 2007, or 1.5 per capita. There’s a reason, though: the most common crimes are purse snatching, pickpocketing and shoplifting, committed by, and against, some of the 18 million people who visit the art-rich Vatican every year.

But those criminals, and the five Vatileaks defendants, aren’t judged by priests out of some painting on the Inquisition.

The Vatican tribunal is in fact composed entirely of lay people — three magistrates, appointed by the pope himself, and a presiding judge. Since 1997, that judge is Giuseppe Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, 72, a canon law expert, professor at several Catholic universities, and – in his spare time – General Lieutenant of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. A public prosecutor, Gian Pietro Milano, is responsible for presenting the case on behalf of the State.

On Monday, Judge Dalla Torre (he normally goes by only one of his several last names) decided to adjourn the trial “until further notice,” in order to hear expert testimony on the electronic devices allegedly used by some of the defendants to communicate. Yet, even with these delays, the Vatican delivers swift justice, at least compared to the proverbial slowness of the Italian judiciary. The average length of a criminal proceeding in Rome is 4.9 years, almost five times longer than in the Vatican, just across the Tiber River from the city’s main courthouse.

Despite these modern traits, critics have blasted the trial as “medieval” and said that its real purpose was to put “the press on trial.” This may be debated, but the fact is that the Vatican actually does not have a guaranteed freedom of the press, or of expression at all.

During the first hearing, journalist Fittipaldi exercised his right to refuse to answer questions, as he explained in an article published days later on the Italian newsweekly L’Espresso, where he works. According to Fittipaldi, he and Nuzzi were being prosecuted not “for publishing false or defamatory news, but simply for publishing news, an act protected by the Italian Constitution.”

Both Fittipaldi and Nuzzi claim the Vatican has no jurisdiction, because they wrote and published their books in Italy, without entering the Vatican’s borders. And what they did is protected anyway, they argue, under Article 21 of the Italian Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of the press and the right to inform the public — but has no equivalent in Vatican law. That’s the same defensive line taken by the attorney for former PR consultant Chaouqui, who demanded his client, also an Italian citizen, be tried in an Italian court. The Vatican tribunal rejected the request.

Pope Francis embracing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (R) prior to the opening of the the Holy Door of Saint Peter’s Basilica, formally starting the Jubilee of Mercy, Vatican City, 8 December 2015. Photo by Osservatore Romano/EPA

If the Vatican judges end up convicting Italian citizens, then it will be Italy’s turn to decide whether it will grant extradition or not. The Italian Minister of the Interior, Angelino Alfano, seems to vaguely suggest that it won’t happen. “Italy and the Vatican have two different penal systems. We should not forget that, in cases like this one, international law applies,” he told La Repubblica. The government will “address the problem” only if, and when, Italians are actually convicted by the Vatican. “But this seems unlikely at the moment,” he added.

One of the reporters, Gianluigi Nuzzi, is already familiar with the intricacies of Vatican justice. His previous book, His Holiness, about the papacy of Benedict XVI, contained several internal documents leaked by the pope’s personal butler, Paolo Gabriele. Gabriele, one of the few people to own the keys to Joseph Ratzinger’s private rooms, was tried and convicted for “aggravated theft,” since the law punishing the leak of confidential documents was introduced by Bergoglio in 2013.

The former private servant of the pope was sentenced to 18 months in prison, which he exceptionally served inside the Vatican, due to concerns about possible further leaks. On 22 December 2012, after a few months in prison and just in time for Christmas, Gabriele was pardoned by Benedict XVI.

A new pardon may be a fitting conclusion for the current trial as well — after all, the secret documents have already been published, and the Church just entered the Holy Year of Mercy. What better opportunity for Pope Francis to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, put into practice the Jubilee’s motto, and write the final chapter of this awkward, disgraceful story with an actual gesture of mercy?

Nuzzi, speaking to Italian state radio broadcaster Rai 2, said he feels “confident” about being acquitted of all charges by the Vatican court. But what if they convict him? “I would go to prison — that’s for sure. But my mind’s at peace. I did my job properly.” Except he thinks that it will just not happen. “My country will deny extradition. To me, that’s a sure thing. I’m being accused of crimes which aren’t punished by the Italian law.”