By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – A Vatican court on Thursday cleared two Italian journalists who had been charged with publishing leaked documents that claimed the headquarters of the Catholic Church was riddled with graft.
In a defeat for the prosecution, the court ruled that it had no jurisdiction over Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi because they are not officials of the Vatican, a sovereign state in the heart of Rome.
However, the court handed down guilty verdicts against two other defendants, Italian public relations expert Francesca Chaouqui and Spanish priest Angel Lucio Vallejo Balda. Vallejo was given an 18-month sentence and Chaouqui, who has a three-week-old son, was given a 10-month suspended sentence.
The prosecution had asked for three years and nine months for Chaouqui and three years and one month for Vallejo.
The fifth defendant, Nicola Maio, an assistant to Vallejo, was found innocent.
The two reporters published books last year that depicted a Vatican plagued by greed and corruption, and where Pope Francis faced stiff resistance from the old guard to his reform agenda.
Angered by the revelations, Vatican investigators accused Chaouqui, Balda and Maio of leaking confidential documents and said the reporters had tried to reap financial reward after knowingly receiving stolen documents.
Media watchdogs accused the Roman Catholic Church of looking to stifle press freedom.
The prosecution in the eight-month, so-called “Vatileaks II” trial had asked for a one-year suspended sentence for Nuzzi and for charges to be dropped against Fittipaldi for insufficient evidence against him.
Fittipaldi said he was “totally surprised” by the sentence. “It was a trial that never should have taken place,” he told reporters outside the Vatican.
“This sentence recognizes the independence of journalists in telling the truth,” said Nuzzi. “Public opinion has been with us on this, people have understood the value of these books.”
PRIEST AND WOMAN HAD AMBIGUOUS RELATIONSHIP
The verdicts marked the end of a sometimes bizarre trial where the spotlight was often on the ambiguous relationship between Chaouqui and Vallejo, who were once members of a now-defunct papal reform commission investigating Vatican finances.
In a final, rambling statement before the court retired on Thursday morning, a weeping Chaouqui said she did not want her child “to spend the first years of his life in a jail.”
Chaouqui and Vallejo had spent most of the trial hurling insults and accusations at each other.
He claimed she was an ambitious and manipulative social climber who put him under a seductive spell and turned against him when she did not get a permanent position in the Vatican.
She sent him text messages with insulting, unpublishable references to his alleged homosexuality. He said she led him to believe she was a spy who could reveal secrets about his personal life if she did not get a prominent Vatican job.
In her final statement, Chaouqui accused Vallejo of lies and denied that she had ever been his lover. She apologized for some of the things she said during the trial.
“I was full of rage. I can’t hold back my tears. I never gave documents to journalists,” she said.
The Vatican made it a crime to disclose official documents in 2013 after a separate leaks scandal, which the media dubbed Vatileaks and which preceded the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
Vallejo, blaming his confused state of mind, admitted giving Nuzzi access to password-protected documents of the now-defunct Vatican commission.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Hugh Lawson)