VATICAN CITY — A Vatican tribunal on Tuesday rejected a journalist’s request to dismiss charges against him for publishing confidential documents as a trial opened in the Holy See’s latest leaks scandal.
Journalists Emiliano Fittipaldi and Gianluigi Nuzzi are accused of having published books about Vatican waste, greed and mismanagement that were based in part on confidential Holy See documents. Alongside them in the courtroom Tuesday were three people, including a high-ranking Vatican monsignor, accused of leaking them the information.
The trial opened amid appeals by media watchdog groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and the OSCE, for the Vatican to drop the charges against the reporters, on the grounds that a free press is a fundamental human right.
The hearing was held in the intimate courtroom of the Vatican’s criminal tribunal, decorated with a photo of Pope Francis facing the defendants and a crucifix behind the bench.
After the charges were read out, Fittipaldi asked to approach the bench and read out a statement to the four judges, saying he decided to show up out of respect for the court even though in Italy he would never have been accused of the charges he faces, much less put on trial.
He noted that he’s not accused of publishing anything false or defamatory, merely news — “an activity that is protected and guaranteed by the Italian constitution, by the European Convention on Human Rights and by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.”
Fittipaldi’s book Avarice, and Nuzzi’s book Merchants in the Temple, both published earlier this month, detail waste and mismanagement in the Vatican administration, the greed of some cardinals and bishops and the resistance Pope Francis is facing in trying to clean it up.
Both books were based on documents produced by a reform commission Francis appointed to get a handle on the Vatican’s financial holdings and propose reforms so that more money could be given to the poor.
The three other people on trial were affiliated with the commission: Monsignor Angelo Lucio Vallejo Balda was its No. 2; Francesca Chaouqui was a member and outside public relations expert; and Nicola Maio was Balda’s assistant.
All three are accused of forming a criminal organization and of procuring and leaking confidential documents. Nuzzi and Fittipaldi are accused of publishing those documents and of “soliciting and exercising pressure, above all on Vallejo Balda, to obtain the documents and other reserved news,” according to prosecutors.
In his statement, Fittipaldi said the accusations against him were so vague that he couldn’t defend himself against them, noting that prosecutors haven’t even spelled out which documents he’s alleged to have obtained illicitly.
His lawyer, Lucia Musso, issued a formal motion to dismiss the charges against him on those grounds.
Contesting Fittipaldi’s motion, Assistant Prosecutor Roberto Zannotti said freedom of the press wasn’t on trial but rather the “illicit behaviour” of the journalists in obtaining the information.
After some 45 minutes of deliberations, the president of the tribunal, Judge Giuseppe Della Torre, rejected Fittipaldi’s motion. The trial resumes Monday with testimony from the defendants.
The two journalists have described the trial as “Kafka-esque” given that they only saw the court file a few hours before trial began. Nuzzi said he only met his lawyer on Tuesday morning for the first time. The five were indicted Friday.
“In Italy, we’re slow with justice, but here maybe we’re a bit too quick,” Nuzzi quipped to reporters during a break in the hearing.
The two reporters face up to eight years in prison if convicted. Since Fittipaldi and Nuzzi are Italian citizens, any sentence would presumably involve an extradition request. Both have said they believed no Italian judge would extradite them given the free speech protections journalists enjoy in Italy.
The journalists deny the pressure accusation but acknowledge that they, like all journalists, obtained information and published it. Chaouqui has denied wrongdoing and was allowed to avoid detention after she co-operated with investigators. Vallejo Balda, who is in Vatican detention, and Maio haven’t responded publicly to the accusations.
Vallejo Balda told reporters he was doing “very well” and felt “protected” inside the Vatican cell. As the secretary of the reform commission, he made some enemies in seeking to get a handle on the true value of the Vatican’s financial holdings.
The Vatican in 2013 criminalized the leaking of confidential information and publishing news from that information after Nuzzi wrote a blockbuster book detailing the corruption, intrigue and petty turf battles that bedevil parts of the Vatican. Some say the scandal had a role in Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign.