Vatican under fire for trying two journalists

Court proceedings began Tuesday for two Italians reporters who released books early this month on corruption at the Vatican. But will their revelations put Pope Francis's policies on trial? 

Reuters/Max Rossi
Pope Francis leaves the synod of the family at the end of the morning session at the Vatican, in this October 5, 2015 file picture. A gathering of world Roman Catholic bishops was thrown into confusion on October 12, 2015, with the leak of a letter from conservative cardinals to Pope Francis bitterly complaining that the meeting was stacked against them. It was published by the same Italian journalist whose press credentials were stripped by the Holy See last June after he ran a leaked copy of the pope's major encyclical on the environment.

Two Italian journalists are among five people now on trial at the Vatican for exposing instances of negligence and corruption among some members of the Catholic hierarchy.

The reporters, Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, each wrote a book describing extravagant purchases and expensive refurbishments within the Vatican. The journalists say they based their books on internal Vatican documents allegedly obtained from high-ranking members inside the church.

The Vatican claims the writers used the books, “Merchants in the Temple” and “Avarice,” to make money off stolen documents while violating “the fundamental interests of the Holy See and the state.”

The Vatican also stated that Mr. Nuzzi and Mr. Fittipaldi demanded and pressured officials to hand over the documents. 

Two officials who were members of the Vatican’s Prefecture for Economic Affairs were arrested with a public relations specialist in early November for leaking the information. The officials were chosen by Pope Francis to review Vatican finances and to increase spending for the poor.

Nuzzi and Fittipaldi, the journalists, said they decided to attend the trial voluntarily because the Vatican, a sovereign state, does not have the right to detain Italian citizens without extradition. If convicted, they could face up to eight years in prison.

On the first day of the trial Tuesday, the journalists said they were given inadequate time to prepare for their defense and were not allowed to hire their own attorneys. "I am incredulous in finding myself here as a defendant in a country that is not mine," Fittipaldi said to the court.

The trial comes as Pope Francis enjoys enormous popularity for his stances on social issues and his efforts to reform the Catholic Church. Some observers have questioned what trying the journalists will accomplish and wondering how it may affect the pope’s standing.

Journalists' groups have condemned the charges, stating that Nuzzi and Fittipaldi's reporting is protected by freedom of the press.

“Journalists should be allowed to carry out their role as watchdog and investigate alleged wrongdoing without fear or repercussions,” said Nina Ognianova, of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Fittipaldi described his own trial as Kafkaesque and an infringement on his basic rights as a journalist. “In no other part of the world, at least in the part of the world that considers itself democratic, is there a crime of a scoop, a crime of publishing news,” he said.

The books, in part based on the leaked documents, exposed a rift between orthodox members of the church and Pope Francis’s push to install his reform agenda.

Some have compared the most recent leaks to those of Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict’s butler, arrested in 2012 for releasing his boss’s documents on Vatican corruption. Nuzzi, one of the journalists on trial, wrote a separate book about the incident.

Others say that many outside the Vatican were already aware of a level of corruption within the Vatican, while the books helped shed light on Pope Francis’s reforms, something most likely to work to the Pope's advantage.

Nonetheless, their requests to dismiss the charges on Tuesday were denied. 

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