Vatican “Wikileaks” reports: Money-laundering and tobacco racketeering, the cost of buying a sainthood & more.

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If London’s red-top tabloids had been charged with cooking up the ultimate scandal, they’d be hard-pressed to beat the byzantine tale of sex, lies, spies, red-faced prelates and abandoned lingerie unfolding in Rome right now.

The story roared to life last month when the Vatican took the banal — if politically controversial — decision to charge two Italian journalists with maliciously soliciting confidential documents from officials of the Holy See.

Three Vatican insiders were indicted for leaking, and all five accused risk eight years in jail if found guilty.

The two reporters, Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi (see box), had just published separate, blockbuster books detailing the litany of unholy financial prac­tices — from alleged money-laundering and tobacco racketeering to the cost of buying a sainthood — that has haunted the Holy See for decades.

Great, racy reading by all accounts, but much of it had already come to light in the wake of Pope Francis’s decision to continue with the historic, if deeply divisive, reforms of the Vatican Bank — and his appointment of Australian Cardinal George Pell to lead the clean-up of its financial affairs.

The first court hearing was held behind the Leonine walls three weeks ago and while the two journalists’ accusations of Vatican heavy-handedness have been intriguing — Nuzzi angrily described the charges as “Kafkaesque” — it has been the sideline antics from their co-accused that have since riveted the European media.

At the heart of the saga is a mysterious, 33-year-old laywoman and public relations “expert”, Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, and a chisel-jawed colleague, Spanish monsignor Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda, 54.

Both were members of the ponderously named Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See, the specialist body set up by Pope Francis in 2013 to help reform the Vatican’s financial arms.

Very little is known about Chao­uqui’s past except that she had worked as a PR for a Roman law firm and was an employee of accounting giant Ernst & Young, probably as a lobbyist.

Dubbed by the Italian press as “la bomba sexy” for her expressive dark eyes and mane of shiny dark hair, she has displayed a penchant for indiscreet Twitter posts, shameless name-dropping and self-publicity, which included getting herself on to a well-known television chat show to discuss her involvement in the case.

Chaouqui denies all allegations of leaking, insisting it was all the priest’s doing, and last week her lawyers were granted permission to call a series of high-profile character witnesses, including the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the Vatican’s chief almsgiver responsible for the Pope’s charitable initiatives, as well as his old friend, Cardinal Santos Abril y Castello.

A secret hearing to examine Whatsapp communications between Chaouqui and the priest also has been agreed — but, so far, no new dates have been set.

Outside the court, Chaouqui insisted she had been made the public scapegoat for the ferocious divisions that have been created within the Curia over Pope Francis’s push to bring the Vatican’s financial affairs into the 21st century.

“They are portraying me as a witch, but I’m innocent,” she insisted.

To date, what has emerged of Chaouqui’s life paints a picture of an energetic, somewhat obsessive woman who claimed to be on first-name terms with a Who’s Who of Rome and who didn’t baulk at asking for — and calling in — favours from a variety of powerful people, including the former head of the Vatican Bank, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, and a Roman countess and close friend of the billionaire Agnelli family, of Fiat fame.

She boasted about her offer to introduce Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s parents to the Pope (apparently she failed) and reportedly was the organiser of a ticket-only, celebrity and VIP-only mass in the Vatican not long after Pope Francis’s election. (Her priest friend apparently gave communion to the VIP guests and was reported to have used a particularly kitsch crystal cup during the sacraments.) The most recent revelations allege Chaouqui attempted to blackmail Silvio Berlusconi and his brother, Paolo, the editor and publisher of Il Giornale newspaper, using inside knowledge that Silvio held accounts with the Vatican Bank. Her price, incredibly, was a demand that Il Giornale stop publishing stories about her.

Chaouqui reportedly was working closely with her husband, who also had a rather nebulous, advisory information technology role with the Vatican via IOR, the Institute for Religious Works.

In an article headlined “Really, who is Francesca Chaouqui?”, La Stampa, one of Italy’s oldest newspapers, asked: “(Is she) a financial consultant pulled from obscurity by Rome’s business network to become part of the Vatican undergrowth? Or is she a spy who, with her IT husband, has inveigled herself into the Holy See’s computers to blackmail and exploit her victims?”

According to Vallejo Balda’s evidence, Chaouqui is simply a wily temptress, a woman of “disturbing” charm who not only made him forget his better judgment on the rules of financial confidentiality but also led him to cast aside his vows of celibacy in a Florentine hotel room.

Nobody is quite sure why Vallejo Balda also volunteered that if evidence were needed of their night of love-making, it could be found via the hotel staff in Florence who would confirm they had found “il baby doll” — her shortie night lingerie — in his room.

The Spanish priest is the only one of the five accused languishing in custody in the Vatican.

Chaouqui’s rebuttal of Vallejo Balda’s claims, vociferous and loaded with underlying threat outside the hearing, included the announcement that not only was she happy and satisfied with her IT expert husband but she was now three months pregnant to boot.

Chaouqui denied any sexual romp with the crop-haired priest and went a step further in a later newspaper interview, warning that her secrecy contract with the Vatican expired in eight months and what was leaked to the journalists represented only “15 per cent” of what she knew.

Vallejo Balda, she stated contemptuously, had slept not with her in the hotel room but with his 85-year-old mother and if she had wanted to be unfaithful it would not be with “an old man”.

Pope Francis, who last month concluded a triumphant, six-day trip through Africa, was unable to avoid questions about the trial and during the traditional mid-air press conference with the travelling Vatican press on the return flight to Rome was forced to remark that “at least there is no Lucrezia Borgia” in the current saga — a reference to the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI who became notorious in the 15th century as a seducer and poisoner.

Unholy romps aside, the Holy See has decided to proceed with the trial despite criticism from human rights groups and the Italian state, which prides itself on a free press. As an independent nation-state, the Vatican has deliberately countered the journalists’ protests that their actions would not be criminalised in Italy or anywhere else in the EU and last week again defended its right to refuse the accused their own regular, Italian jurisdiction, lawyers.

It also has raised questions about Pope Francis’s powerful commitment to a free press and democratic, civil societies, although some observers suggest it is a symbolic move to teach journalists a lesson in the wake of the personal affront and pain caused by internal leaks to his predecessor, Pope Benedict.

In fact, journalist Nuzzi was himself a high-profile protagonist in the original Vatileaks scandal three years ago when he became the recipient of the financial documents stolen from Pope Benedict’s desk by his butler, Paolo Gabriele.

These were published in his first bestselling book, His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Pope Benedict XVI.

Dubbed “il corvo” (the crow) by the Italian media, butler Gabriele was arrested in 2012 and his personal betrayal was said to have contributed to the 85-year-old German pontiff’s shock decision to become the first pope to resign in office in 800 years.

According to the Catholic Herald, the key claims contained in Nuzzi’s most recent book, Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis’s Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican, include:

• Emails, minutes of meetings and recorded private conversations between the Pope and officials reveal a Vatican bureaucracy that remains entrenched in a culture of mismanagement, waste and secrecy.

• An internal report into the Vatican’s financial affairs found the value of Vatican real estate was €2.7 billion ($4.1bn), seven times higher than the amount entered on to the balance sheets. Rents, on the other hand, were sometimes 30 per cent to 100 per cent below market value, including apartments given free to cardinals and bureaucrats as part of their compensation or retirement packages.

The book suggests that if market rates were applied, homes given to employees would generate income of €19.4m as opposed to the €6.2m presently recorded, while other “institutional” buildings that today generate no income would generate income of €30.4m.

• The average cost of a single campaign for sainthood is €500,00 and can climb as high as €750,000. However, candidates who inspire wealthy donors generally are well funded while the poorer causes get very little — or are stalled.

• A theft on March 30 last year at the Vatican’s financial reform commission was an inside job, as the thieves knew exactly which locker to target to get the documents.

• Five international auditors wrote to Pope Francis in June 2013, reporting “a complete absence of transparency in the bookkeeping both of the Holy See and the Governorate”, including that “costs are out of control. This applies in particular to personnel costs, but it also extends elsewhere.”

Pope Francis’s election on March 13, 2013, is widely accepted to have been bolstered by his pledge to proceed with Pope Benedict’s reforms of the Vatican Bank.

His ability to harness the support of a bloc of conservative and influential cardinals included Pell, who is now charged with the difficult task of overseeing reforms that ensure the Vatican’s financial affairs abide by global regulations on money movement, including anti-laundering and anti-terror frameworks.

According to a statement released to Vatican Radio, the Holy See’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, insisted the journalists and whistleblowers would be given a fair trial and that proceedings were being conducted with “seriousness and competency”.

He dismissed much of the media criticism as “inappropriate” and “entirely unjustified” and said there were legal “procedural guarantees” in place to ensure a fair and proper trial for the five.

The Vatican also rolled out Cesare Mirabelli, a former president and now emeritus judge of the Italian Constitutional Court, who insisted press freedom remained: “What needs to be evaluated is whether these documents were acquired in a legitimate manner; whether they were acquired by criminal means, whether the journalists were involved in the illegal — I would be inclined to say ‘criminal’ — removal of these documents,” he told Vatican Radio.

“So what is being called into question is not the freedom of the press but an “inappropriate use of freedom”.

Meanwhile, a transfixed European press and public await the next instalment of the Vatican’s very own soap opera.