VATICAN CITY — For many inside the Vatican, Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui was trouble from the start. The willowy 32-year-old brunette raised eyebrows almost immediately in 2013 when, at 30, she was handpicked by Pope Francis as the only laywoman on an eight-member advisory panel called the Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See.
On Monday, the Vatican confirmed that Chaouqui, along with a Spanish monsignor named Lucio Vallejo Balda, who was the secretary of COSEA, had been arrested for leaking documents to journalists.
Sound familiar? It should. In 2012, Pope Benedict’s butler Paolo Gabriele was arrested for just the same crime, and the butler was charged with leaking to just the same journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi, who has a new book coming out this week.
His previous book, His Holiness, is widely believed to be the last straw that led to the eventual resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. God (and likely Chaouqui) only knows what his new book, called Via Crucis in Italian and Merchants in the Temple in English, will reveal when it hits bookstores Thursday. Nuzzi tells The Daily Beast that Chaouqui did not collaborate on this, or any, of his books. But he told us the same thing about the butler, too.
Though Chaouqui’s résumé is impressive at face value, with stints at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe and Ernst & Young, she didn’t quite fit the Vatican mold. She was a devout Catholic, sure, but she had tweeted a number of questionable missives that didn’t sit well with the ruling Vatican elite at the time, including how she thought that the Holy See’s then-secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone was “corrupt,” and how Italy’s finance minister Giulio Tremonti was “un gay,” and who she implied was quite well known among the Vatican’s gay lobby and for which Tremonti later sued her for slander (the case is pending).
She had also perpetuated a rumor that Pope Benedict XVI had leukemia, not so different from the recent rumor about Francis and a non-existent brain tumor. But perhaps the biggest question mark in her suitability for such a high-profile Vatican job is the series of semi-nude photos she posted of herself with an equally unclothed man, which earned her an accolade from the website Go Topless, which congratulated her as “the only female aide appointed by the Vatican for freely showing her nude torso.”
At the time of her appointment, she told The Daily Beast that those photos were simply “artistic” and had nothing to do with her qualifications on such a high-profile panel.
“I am the only woman on this type of commission and of course everyone wants to find a way to disgrace me,” she said at the time. No one pushed the matter further and the COSEA finished their assigned recommendations and eventually dismantled. Her Twitter account, in which she shared what now seem like cryptic tweets with Nuzzi, has also disappeared, though lives on in eternity through retweets and her digital footprint.
Most accepted Pope Francis’s approval of Chaouqui’s appointment as part of the old-style Vatican status quo. Chaouqui, it was assumed, was surely a sister, wife, or cousin of some prelate who was owed a favor. In fact, it turns out, she was much more that that: She may well have been planted by those who feared just the type of reforms Francis would endeavor—especially in the Vatican Bank, where many with protected accounts stood to lose considerable profits in the overhaul. There is plenty of speculation in Rome that she had previously leaked a series of tips to Italian journalists as the bank was undergoing its belt tightening, during which it closed scores of secret accounts. Perhaps it was seen by some with more to lose as valuable to have someone like her with an ear to the ground in the center of things.
Her appointment, though made personally by Francis, was apparently prescribed by Monsiguor Balda, the man with whom she now shares the hot seat and who is a prominent figure in Opus Dei, an ultra-conservative Catholic order that has never quite seen eye to eye with the Jesuits like Francis. Chaouqui, who says she is not a member of Opus Dei, but who admits to being “spiritually close” to their thinking (except maybe when it comes to public nudity), explained to Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli of the Vatican Insider that Balda recruited her even though it would undoubtedly anger Bertone, who she had publically humiliated with her tweet, which did not go unnoticed among Vatican watchers.
“One day, Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda, secretary of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See and member of Opus Dei, called. I knew him, he is the best economist that the Church has ever had in all the earth, [he said], ‘You could be a candidate for the Committee on the Economic Directory of the Holy See. Send me your résumé,” she told Tornielli. “So it happens. And I am appointed. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State, learns of the Commission and its members only in a Chirograph (a church document circulated for the benefit of the Curia alone), the act, with which Pope Francis appointed us, will be officially announced.”
Balda, who was passed over for a high-profile job in the Vatican’s economic arm after the reforms went through a few months ago, remains in a Vatican jail cell a stone’s throw from Casa Santa Marta, where the pope sleeps. Chaouqui, who retained retained celebrity attorney Giulia Bongiorno, who helped free both Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti from Mafia charges and Meredith Kercher murder suspect Raffaele Sollecito from prison, instead was released, apparently because she was cooperating with the investigators, though Bongiorno says she can’t leave the country. Further arrests are not ruled out and a trial is expected in 2016.
The leaks in Nuzzi’s book promise to be explosive, and to complicate things more for the Vatican, a book by journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi called Avarice: Documents Revealing Wealth, Scandals and Secrets of Francis’s Church will come out in Italy the same day. The Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi says the books are defiant and it escapes no one that the arrests may have pre-emptive rather than reactive as was the case when Benedict’s butler was found out. By arresting the alleged moles before the leaks are published, the Vatican can avoid looking too surprised, though they almost assure turning both into best-sellers among Vatican watchers.
“As for the books announced for publication in the the next few days, let it be clearly stated at this time, as in the past, that such actions are a serious betrayal of trust granted by the Pope and with regard to the authors, an operation that takes advantage of a seriously unlawful act—unlawful delivery of confidential documents,” Lombardi said in a statement issued Monday afternoon in Rome. “Publications of this kind do not contribute in any way to establish clarity and truth, but rather to create confusion and partial and tendentious interpretations. We must absolutely avoid the mistake of thinking that this is a way to help the mission of the Pope.”