comscore Scapegoat or spy? Vatican consultant commands attention at leaks trial

Scapegoat or spy? Vatican consultant commands attention at leaks trial

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VATICAN CITY >> Her accusers call her an ambitious schemer, even a spy. The presiding judge has wondered aloud whether she is “full of hot air.” Vatican prosecutors want her in jail for as many as 15 years, charging that she stole and leaked state secrets.

She calls herself a scapegoat, claiming she is the target of a vendetta and a plot by her enemies to discredit her with Pope Francis.

Whatever the truth, Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui (pronounced CHOW-kee) has emerged as the central protagonist in what is being billed here as the “Vatileaks 2” trial, and become a lightning rod of intrigue and criticism.

A hero to some and a villain to others, Chaouqui — Calabrian born, 34 years old and more than eight months pregnant — stands accused with two others of leaking confidential documents to two journalists who wrote separate tell-all books about Vatican mismanagement and corruption. The trial follows the pattern of the first Vatileaks trial, in which Paolo Gabriele, the butler to Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, faced similar charges.

The journalists, Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emanuele Fittipaldi, face up to eight years in prison in a case that has raised widespread criticism that the Vatican is trying to muzzle free speech and squelch embarrassing revelations. One of the most secretive states, the Vatican has defined the disclosures as a threat to its security.

Over more than six months of testimony, Vatican watchers hoping that the courtroom revelations would blow the lid off Dan Brown-like intrigue and Machiavellian machinations inside the guarded halls of the Holy See have been disappointed. Instead, the trial, which is expected to end this month, has produced still more embarrassments. Testimony has revealed serious weaknesses in the Vatican’s security system: Unknown intruders were able to enter into what were supposed to be secure offices and break open a safe, as well as breach protected internet connections.

Several witnesses called by the prosecution exposed an array of human foibles, nurtured by workplace rivalries, petty jealousies, recriminations and thwarted ambitions. Not least, the trial has raised critical questions among some Vatican observers about Francis’s staffing choices, Chaouqui foremost among them.

A communications consultant, Chaouqui was part of an eight-member commission established by Francis in July 2013 to review the Vatican’s economic and administrative structures and draft recommendations for reform. His decision to appoint Chaouqui to the group raised eyebrows because she was seen as too much of an outsider. She now says that she is being set up by her enemies inside the Vatican and that the case against her is “political.”

“I am a scapegoat,” she said in a recent interview at the home her Vatican lawyer, Laura Sgro, in Rome. “The prosecutors haven’t produced one single bit of evidence that shows that I gave a document from A to B.”

When a Vatican gendarme testified that Chaouqui admitted in November, when she was briefly arrested, that she had given documents to one of the journalists, she retorted in court that the “documents” had been tickets to a Vatican event.

She says she believes that she worked only for the good of the church, and that the mandate and recommendations of her commission have been thwarted by inaction.

“My commission discovered and denounced very serious crimes” to Vatican prosecutors and financial regulators that were never acted upon, she said in the interview.

“I imagined that Vatican justice would take action against these people who committed financial crimes that are really serious, far more than those written up” in the Vatileaks books, she added. “But until now nothing has happened, at least as far as I know.”

Several other members of the commission, which was disbanded after 10 months, having completed its mandate, did not respond to emails or declined to comment.

The recommendations of the commission led to the creation in February 2014 of the Secretariat for the Economy, which oversees all of the Vatican’s economic and administrative activities.

It also recommended the reorganization of the Vatican’s media operations, which has begun.

Prosecutors insist Chaouqui conspired with another member of the committee, Msgr. Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda, and his secretary, Nicola Maio — both also facing 15 years in prison — to form a secretive lobby that leaked documents to journalists.

But Sgro, Chaouqui’s lawyer, said the prosecution had not yet explained “what advantage her client would achieve” from this arrangement.

Critics say that Chaouqui, through Vallejo Balda, was attempting to cement her position within the Holy See even after the commission she was part of had been disbanded. Chaouqui called the theory laughable. “Employees of the curia make around 2,000 euros a month, which is what I earn in less than a week,” she scoffed. “It’s clear that wouldn’t be my aspiration.”

The swirl of innuendo whipped up around her has been as compelling as it is contradictory. When he took the stand in March, Vallejo Balda recounted that Chaouqui had told him that she was a top Italian spy. He also spoke of a night in a Florentine hotel during which — “acting seductively” — Chaouqui “wanted to conquer me at any cost.”

“I understand that this night of love was the thing that most scandalized public opinion, but it’s all very false,” Chaouqui said in the interview, rolling her eyes. Her encounters with Vallejo Balda were part of a “normal working relationship” between members of the same commission, she said. “I never wanted a job in the curia. I wanted to bring my reforms forward.”

After working for several prestigious Italian law firms managing their public relations, and then for the professional services firm Ernst & Young, Chaouqui set up her own communications strategy company. It counted top entrepreneurs, private security companies and governments as clients, she said.

Her credentials do not seem to have impressed the Vatican court.

“Did you have the impression that she was full of hot air?” the presiding judge, Giuseppe Dalla Torre, recently asked a witness. The witness responded that, in fact, Chaouqui had made good on her promise to bring a government minister to visit a project.

Soon after her selection, the Italian media published a series of disparaging messages, purportedly from Chaouqui’s Twitter account, including one suggesting that Benedict had leukemia, and that a former Italian government minister was gay.

She claims that her account was hacked, and that the messages were part of a larger dossier put together by her enemies to discredit her with the pope. She repeated the assertion in court in May, and again on her Facebook account, to explain why she had been unjustly brought to trial.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican Press Office, warned in a statement in May that her accusations were “calumnious affirmations — they are absolutely unacceptable, and subject to legal action.”

Chaouqui dismissed criticisms that she has been too flippant on her social media accounts in trying to refute the accusations that have been raised in court, which she sees as part of a defamatory campaign against her. “I am not a nun. I am a communicator,” she said. “Vatileaks has become the most important communications strategy of my life.”

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