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ROME – Marx famously said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. The Vatican seemed to supply a classic for-instance Friday with a return performance by Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, the femme fatale at the heart of the Vatileaks 2.0 scandal early in Francis’s papacy, who’s now back as a witness in the pontiff’s “Trial of the Century.”
Chaouqui, a former PR officer for Ernst & Young, was appointed in 2014 to a commission advising the newly elected Pope Francis on financial reform, only to be indicted and convicted by a Vatican tribunal for leaking confidential documents to journalists. At the time, the outcome seemed to mark the end of her brief stint as a Vatican personality.
Yet last fall, amid the ongoing trial of ten defendants for alleged financial crimes, including Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, it emerged that Chaouqui had played an incognito role in advising the star prosecution witness, Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, about how to shape his testimony. After that disclosure, she too was called to testify, and Friday was her first turn on the stand. (She will be back February 16.)
To paraphrase the immortal movie “Princess Bride,” there’s too much to explain, so I’ll try to sum up.
To begin with, there were actually two women who helped Perlasca prepare his memorandum for Vatican investigators. One was Chaouqui, while the other was Genoveffa Ciferri, a consecrated secular Franciscan who once worked as an analyst for the Italian security service and who’s a longstanding personal friend of Perlasca.
Both women testified Friday, contradicting one another on virtually every imaginable point, from how they communicated – whether it was by text message or phone calls – to who suggested that Perlasca be told the input from Chaouqui actually came from an “elderly magistrate,” thus keeping him in the dark about her involvement. (Ciferri said she didn’t want to tell Perlasca because she heard Chaouqui “is like charcoal — whoever touches it gets dirty.”)
Ciferri also testified that Chaouqui told her she was coordinating her suggestions for Perlasca with prosecutors in the case and the Vatican gendarmes, while Chaouqui denied ever saying that, insisting her only interlocutor was Pope Francis himself.
(By way of background, Chaouqui has claimed that Francis started talking to her again around the time he removed Becciu as the sostituto, or number two official in the Secretariat of State, in 2018, and that she has regularly kept him up to date.)
Perhaps the most melodramatic moment came during Ciferri’s testimony, when she claimed that at one point in 2018 she feared Becciu wanted to have Perlasca killed, after Perlasca was administered barbiturates “that left him like a zombie for days.” (An article by Vatican News, the Vatican’s state-owned news agency, said that what actually happed is that a doctor from the Vatican health service prescribed a few drops of valium for Perlasca after an “hysterical crisis.”)
In the end, Ciferri and Chaouqui seemed to cancel each other out, making it difficult to know who really shaped Perlasca’s testimony and why – perhaps, therefore, putting its evidentiary value into question.
Meanwhile, Becciu continued his apparent strategy of never failing to swing at a low pitch, insisting on taking the stand to read a statement in response to Chaouqui’s testimony.
In it, Becciu expressed open skepticism that Chaouqui has the access to Pope Francis she’s claimed, saying he never even had that kind of entrée when he was the sostituto, meaning the pope’s Chief of Staff. He also denied being the one who ordered Chaouqui’s arrest during the Vatileaks process, and also denied that he’s the one who blocked a papal pardon after her conviction. Instead, Becciu said he took the request for a pardon to the pontiff, who responded that he didn’t want to hear Chaouqui’s name anymore and also confirmed that her pass card to come and go inside the Vatican should be cancelled.
Finally, Becciu referred to an episode in August 2022 when Chaouqui was seen greeting Pope Francis at the conclusion of a General Audience.
Becciu quoted a letter of complaint he wrote to the pope at the time: “By receiving her you have shown solidarity with her and indirect support for her accusatory theses against me,” he wrote. “In procedural terms your act will not be seen as emanating from the pope but from the First Magistrate of the legal system of the Vatican State, and therefore as an interference in the trial.”
In return, Becciu said he got a letter of apology from the pope, who said he’d nearly forgotten Chaouqui’s history and had no idea she was involved in the trial – directly contradicting her claims of regular communication.
If there is a non-farcical reflection on all this, perhaps it’s how Friday’s spectacle arguably has confirmed the desirability of a true separation of powers in the Vatican judicial system.
As things stand, the pope is both the supreme executive and judicial authority. In the past that’s never seemed a problem, since the Vatican tribunal was a sleepy operation mostly occupied with pickpocketing cases in St. Peter’s Square. Francis, to his credit, seems to want the system to do more, holding even the most senior officials accountable if they violate the law.
As a result, the system is under greater scrutiny, and any perceived interference by the pope creates legal headaches in terms of due process and the right to a fair trial. Naturally, a pope can’t stop governing because a trial is underway, and it’s probably inevitable that some of what he does could be perceived as “interference.”
For example, in September Francis appointed Alessandro Didi, one of the prosecutors in the current case, as the Vatican’s new Promoter of Justice. However much the Vatican may frame that as a routine personnel move, when it comes in the middle of a high-profile trial it can’t help but seem like a papal thumbs-up for the prosecution.
The only way to avoid impressions of a stacked deck is for the Vatican’s civil judiciary to be truly independent. The pope could still appoint its judges, but after that the court itself would be the Vatican’s supreme judicial authority, including the power to review (and, if warranted, to vacate) pontifical acts for non-compliance with the law.
Naturally, that power would be limited to civil matters such as finance and personnel. The tribunal would have no jurisdiction over faith and morals, which would remain the sole province of the pontiff.
With such a reform, it wouldn’t matter anymore if the pope has a chat with someone involved in a trial, or if he makes a personnel move, because he wouldn’t be the one calling the judicial shots and thus there wouldn’t be any due process issues.
By itself, such a reform admittedly wouldn’t do much to help us sort out who’s lying in the current Vatican trial, or where blame for the London fiasco truly lies.
It would, however, at least remove one chronic complaint about the integrity of the process – and, in so doing, also bring the Vatican’s own internal practice into compliance with Catholic social teaching about the legitimate autonomy of the judiciary everywhere else.