By Philip Pullella
Five people, including two Italian reporters, went on trial in the Vatican on Tuesday, to outrage from rights’ groups, on charges arising from publication of books in which the Holy See was portrayed as mired in mismanagement and corruption.
At the first session, dominated by procedural issues and dubbed “Kafkaesque” by one of the defendants, journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi said they had done nothing wrong and had simply fulfilled their professional duty.
“I am incredulous in finding myself here as a defendant in a country that is not mine,” Fittipaldi told the court, adding that publishing news was protected by the Italian constitution as well as European conventions and universal declarations on human rights.
The trial, being heard by three non-clerical judges in the sovereign city-state, stems from publication of two books which depict a Vatican plagued by mismanagement, greed and corruption and where Pope Francis faces stiff resistance from the old guard to his reform agenda.
Two of the officials indicted, Spanish Monsignor Angel Lucio Vallejo Balda, who was number two at the Vatican’s Prefecture for Economic Affairs, and Italian laywoman Francesca Chaouqui, a public relations expert, were arrested earlier this month.
Balda and Chaouqui were both members of a non-defunct commission Francis set up in 2013 to study economic and administrative reforms. Vatican employee Nicola Maio, Balda’s assistant, also went on trial.
The Holy See was embarrassed and angered by the books, which it said used information that should never have been allowed to leave the walls of the city state.
The leaks are one of the biggest internal scandals to hit the papacy of Pope Francis and are reminiscent of the “Vatileaks” furore that preceded the resignation of former Pope Benedict in 2013. The Italian media has dubbed the latest episodes ‘Vatileaks II’.
The Vatican has said “Merchants in the Temple” by Nuzzi and “Avarice” by Fittipaldi, give a “partial and tendentious” version of events and has accused the writers of trying to reap financial advantages from receiving stolen documents. The books were published earlier this month.
Both journalists complained they had been forced to accept court-appointed lawyers and had been given documents needed for their defence only days, or hours, before the trial started.
Fittipaldi told reporters that he had not met his lawyer until the trial was about to start. The court ruled that a senior Vatican judge would have to decide if outside lawyers could represent the two but that judge was out of Rome.
The next session was set for Monday.
Nuzzi told reporters during a break that the trial was “absurd and Kafkaesque” but it would not stop him from publishing more books.
In their indictment, prosecutors said Balda, Chaouqui and Maio formed “an organised criminal association” with the aim of “divulging information and documents concerning the fundamental interests of the Holy See and the State”.
Nuzzi and Fittipaldi, wrote books based on the leaks. Their indictment said both “solicited and applied pressure, especially on Vallejo Balda, to obtain secret documents and information.
Both have complained that they have had to accept court-ordered lawyers accredited to the Vatican and not allowed to use Italian lawyers.
The defendants risk jail sentences of up to eight years.
The human rights watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), urged the Vatican on Monday to withdraw the charges.
“Journalists must be free to report on issues of public interests and to protect their confidential sources,” the OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, said.
“I call on the authorities not to proceed with the charges and protect journalists’ rights in accordance with OSCE commitments,” she said.
The Italian journalists’ federation, Italy’s foreign press Association and AIGAV, the association of reporters accredited to the Vatican also condemned the indictment of the journalists.
“We have to stress that publishing news is precisely our job,” AIGAV said, calling the decision to try the journalists “unacceptable”.