VATICAN CITY — A Vatican court declared Thursday it had no jurisdiction to prosecute two journalists for having published confidential information after an eight-month trial that drew scorn from media rights groups around the world.
The court did convict a Vatican monsignor and an Italian communications expert for having conspired to pass documents to the journalists, but cleared them of having formed a criminal association to do so. A fifth defendant, the monsignor’s secretary, was cleared of all charges.
The verdict was an embarrassment to Vatican prosecutors, who had accused the journalists of conspiring and putting pressure on the three other defendants to get the information. Prosecutors had accused the three of forming a shady, secretive criminal organization that conspired to reveal confidential Vatican documents.
In the end, the president of the four-judge tribunal, Judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre, asserted the Vatican had no jurisdiction over the Italian journalists and ruled there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show that any such criminal organization existed.
Speaking in the name of Pope Francis, Dalla Torre prefaced his sentence by insisting that the freedom of the press was enshrined in the Vatican legal code and that freedom of thought was “guaranteed by divine law.”
Journalists Emiliano Fittipaldi and Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi wrote blockbuster books last year based on Vatican documents 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.
The documentation had been compiled by a pontifical commission that Francis tasked to gather information about the Vatican’s finances to make them more transparent and efficient.
Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda, the reform commission’s No. 2, admitted in court that he gave Nuzzi 85 passwords to password-protected documents. He denied that the journalists threatened him, and put the blame of feeling pressured on Francesca Chaouqui, the communications expert who was also a member of the commission.
The court convicted Vallejo of passing documents to the journalists and sentenced him to 18 months in prison. While clearing Chaouqui of actually passing documents, the court found her guilty of conspiring with Vallejo and sentenced her to a 10-month suspended sentence.
The fifth defendant, Nicola Maio, was cleared.
It wasn’t immediately clear if anyone would appeal. Chaouqui, who recently gave birth, had said she would have gone to prison, babe in arms, rather than appeal the sentence or ask for a papal pardon.
Publishing confidential information is a crime in the Vatican, punishable by up to eight years in prison.
The journalists are Italian and had challenged the Vatican’s jurisdiction to prosecute them. Prosecutors had asserted jurisdiction over them regardless, but the court rejected that argument and declared it had no jurisdiction since neither journalist was a Vatican public official and the alleged crime didn’t take place on Vatican territory.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and other media watchdog organizations had 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.
The journalists had denounced the Vatican for putting them on trial rather than the priests and laymen whose wrongdoing they uncovered, calling the proceedings a “farce” since prosecutors accused 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 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 Chaouqui’s son Pietro was born on June 14.
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. He was not put under investigation.
In 2012, in the first document leaks scandal before the same Vatican tribunal, Pope Benedict XVI’s own butler was convicted of giving Nuzzi confidential documents that painted Bertone in a bad light and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Benedict eventually pardoned the butler.
Nuzzi wasn’t charged in that case, but the Vatican City State later criminalized the publication of confidential information.