VATICAN CITY — Be careful what you wish for.
If the Vatican had hoped to teach reporters a lesson in restraint by putting two journalists on trial for printing leaked documents, it was sorely mistaken. In fact, the global outrage at the Holy See’s attempt to stifle the free press may in fact be just what’s fueling a frenzy of steamy secrets and a no-holds-barred attitude that has been making the Vatican look more like a hotbed of ill repute than a holy place of prayer and moral guidance.
What started as a fairly banal Vatileaks II trial—in which a monsignor, a public-relations specialist, an administrative assistant, and two journalists faced charges for leaking and printing classified financial documents that, frankly, weren’t all that surprising nor all that secret—has turned into a tale of illicit sex, spies, extortion, and computer hacking.
Spanish Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda and PR specialist Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui were both on a committee set up by Pope Francis to offer guidance to help straighten out the Holy See’s muddled finances. According to prosecutors, they, with the help of Balda’s administrative cleric, allegedly fed journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi documents from the committee that showed the depth of corruption and questionable financial practices that were the norm in the Vatican for decades.
The journalists’ books sought to outline gross financial malpractice through balance sheets and petty gossip about overspending. But what has emerged on the sidelines of the case is, frankly, far more titillating.
Among the sleaziest of the details is that Balda, 54, claimed to have broken his vows of priestly celibacy with Chaouqui, 33, at a Florentine hotel after she apparently seduced him to her bed.
According to a memorandum Balda wrote to his legal team from his Vatican jail cell, where he has been held since his arrest in early November, Chaouqui, who is being portrayed as a sort of harlot of the Holy See, told the monsignor that she worked for Italy’s Secret Service and often collaborated with the CIA. He says she also told him that her own marriage, to IT specialist husband Corrado Lanino, was a sham and he says she even produced photos of her husband with another woman who was his “real wife,” which the monsignor said he took as a sign to justify her infidelity.
Balda also says he pulled away from the younger woman after their night of passion, which he says angered her. He described Chaouqui as “furious” when he said he could not see her again.
Chaouqui denies all claims of impropriety, insisting that she is happily married and that Balda is actually gay. She says they did spend the night in question together, but that she was in her room and Balda slept in his room with his elderly mother.
In WhatsApp messages that are now part of the court dossier, Chaouqui appears to have lashed out at Balda countless times. “You’re a worm, a poor prick,” she wrote to the monsignor, according to the leaked transcripts. “You’re also a religious shit and I do not understand how you managed to take the sacraments.”
In a televised interview Chaouqui gave after the trial was announced, she alluded to her suspicion that Galda was gay. “The last thing Balda would do is go to bed with me,” she said. “I know emirs and millionaires. If I wanted to betray my husband, I wouldn’t do it with an old priest who doesn’t even like women.”
As if the show trial needs a sideshow, Chaouqui is also now being accused separately of blackmailing Silvio Berlusconi’s brother Paolo, owner of the Il Giornale newspaper. Balda revealed that Chaouqui was a frequent guest at dinner parties thrown by the Berlusconi brothers, who don’t deny knowing her.
Il Giornale ran rather unflattering articles about the PR specialist after she was given the job by Pope Francis, including coining the nickname “Sex Bomb” after revelations that she posed semi-nude with her husband for an online stunt.
Chaouqui apparently threatened Berlusconi, promising that if he allowed any more bad press to be printed about her, she would tell the pope to investigate the secret accounts held by the Berlusconi empire at the Vatican Bank. The Berlusconi clan denies the existence of any such accounts, and in fact were scolded for not reporting Chaouqui’s extortion attempts.
On Tuesday night, Italian police raided Chaouqui’s rented apartment in Rome, possibly in connection with the extortion charges or perhaps an investigation into the acquisition of a 14th-century castle in Umbria that the two helped broker. Police took away boxes of documents and computers and are reportedly also checking into the complicity of Chaouqui’s husband, who is facing allegations of hacking in his attempts to assist his wife’s defense.
Her trouble with the Holy See falls under a Vatican tribunal, which does not have jurisdiction outside the city-state’s hallowed walls, so whatever the police were looking for would appear to have nothing to do with the Vatileaks scandal.
That trial was suspended last week while Chaouqui’s new defense lawyer prepares her case. It will resume next Monday—the eve of the Vatican’s Holy Jubilee Year of Mercy. On the flight back from the pope’s visit to Africa this past Monday, Francis gave the impression that he was well-versed in all matters of the case, including the fact that neither Balda or Chaouqui were offered positions on a new financial commission once their work was over. “Some say she was upset about this, but the judges will tell us the truth about the intentions, how they did it,” Francis said. “For me, it was not a surprise. I didn’t lose any sleep because it showed the work that had begun with the commission of cardinals, the C9, of seeking out corruption and things that don’t work.”
“I would have liked to finish it before December 8 for the Year of Mercy, but I don’t think they’ll be able to do it, because I would like all of the lawyers who are defending to have the [necessary] amount of time to defend, that they have the freedom of defense,” Francis added.
In the meantime, Chaouqui, who says she is pregnant, has told reporters she has only spilled 15 percent of the beans on what is really going on inside the Vatican. “Gay lobby? It’s worse than that,” she told The London Times, promising to reveal a secret sacred world no one knows about. And there is little doubt she will have no problem at all finding someone to tell her story.