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Vatileaks sheds light on pope's reform struggles

The Vatican is currently on the defensive over trying to protect some of its secrets that two enterprising journalists are trying to expose. Megan Williams reports from Rome.

In February 2012, one year before he became Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio gave his last interview as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Speaking to Vatican Insider, Cardinal Bergoglio answered a question about the troubled Vatican bureaucracy, known as the curia. It had been recently rocked by the publication of documents stolen by Pope Benedict's butler, revealing corruption, mismanagement and greed.

However, when asked about outside perceptions of the curia, rather than address the problems the publication of the documents had revealed, Bergoglio lashed out against journalists.

"Sometimes negative news does come out, but it is often exaggerated and manipulated to spread scandal," he said. "Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia."

For those not up on their Ancient Greek, coprophagia means, well, eating excrement.

Given his view of journalists, it's perhaps not surprising that one of Bergoglio's first moves as Pope Francis was to draft a law specifically aimed at clamping down on freedom of the press, a least when it comes to revealing Vatican "secrets."

Spreading secrets

On July 11, 2013, less than four months after Francis took the helm of the Catholic Church, the Holy See passed what experts call a harsh and retrograde law making it a crime against the state to "illegitimately obtain or reveal classified documents," carrying a prison sentence of six months to two years in prison. If the documents are deemed to be of "fundamental" or diplomatic importance to the Vatican, the crime is punishable by a prison sentence of four to eight years.

This month, for the first time, the Vatican has flexed the muscle of the new law, doing its best to strong-arm not just two people it's investigating for allegedly taking classified documents - a Spanish priest now in a Vatican jail cell and an Italian PR woman - but also two Italian journalists who published books that drew from the material, depicting overspending and powerful resistance inside the Vatican to making its finances more transparent.

This week, Emiliano Fittipaldi, author of "Avarice" and Gianluigi Nuzzi, author of "Merchants in the Temple," were both formally summons to the Vatican for questioning.

two men copyright: picture alliance/AP Photo/G. Borgia)

Uncovering some uncomfortable truths

Nuzzi ignored the summons, as Vatican law does not guarantee his right to publish news in the public interest while protecting his sources. He accused Pope Francis of presiding over inquisition-style proceedings.

Emiliano Fittipaldi, however, went in for questioning - curious, he said to find out what the charges against him were. Prosecutors told him that if the Vatican tribunal charges and finds him guilty, he'll face the stiffest sentence, from four to eight years in prison.

Fittipaldi says he refused to answer the Vatican's questions and believes prosecutors will likely shelve the case, especially given Italy guarantees freedom of the press and will not likely extradite him.

Iron fist

Nonetheless, he says the Vatican's choosing to come down on journalists "with an iron fist," rather than focus energy on repairing internal dysfunction reveals a disturbing "problem of coherence."

"Everything I wrote in the book was merely a detailed account of what Francesco has already told the world," he says, citing the pope's searing address to the curia in December 2014, when he listed bureaucratic ills such as "spiritual Alzheimer's" that Vatican workers needed to be cured of.

"What I wrote about were things he'd already denounced, but more forcefully."

And yet the pope's irritation with what Fittipaldi calls "airing dirty laundry in public" is palpable. Just days after the arrests of the two suspects, Pope Francis publically blasted those behind the leaks, calling it a "deplorable crime." He also vowed that the controversy would not deter him from making reforms to the curia.

Observers say, though, the pope's biggest obstacle to those reforms continues to lie inside the Vatican hierarchy, not with the press or public.

"It goes without saying that the Vatican is slow and prudent [with reform]," says Franceso Peloso, author of "The Pope's Bank." "They were pushed by outside, international laws to produce a whole legislative reform regarding finance and banking transparency. Remember: this was a place where cardinals didn't even have to sign for expenses. So it's sent shockwaves through the Vatican."

Peloso says the reforms are far from over and predicts there will be many more conflicts aired. He says it wouldn't surprise him if the Vatican itself started exposing some of the malfeasance in order to keep the reforms going.

Power game

"The Vatican is playing a power game of its own with these reforms."

books on a table Copyright: picture alliance/dpa/C. Fusco

Greed and deceit are rife according to the books in question

The criminal investigation into Nuzzi and Fittipaldi comes as Italian finance police have launched an investigation of their own: into a once high-up figure within the Italian Catholic Church, the former abbot of the Montecassino, the site of a famed World War II battle.

Three years ago, then Abbot Pietro Vittorelli recorded a video message to parishioners asking, with "sincerity and humility," for their prayers. "Never give up," he urged them, as he himself was giving up his post as abbot.

At the time, the Vatican and Vittorelli claimed his resignation was due to health reasons. Yet as Vatican expert Iacopo Scaramuzzi says, it was another example of the Vatican wanting to keep revelations of corruption quiet.

"The Vatican never admitted that there was a problem of mishandling money, but you could understand there was something going on because it's strange to retire before the age of 75."

What was going on, Italian police now allege, is that Vittorelli and his brother had stolen more than 500,000 euros ($535,000), donated by Italians under the impression they were supporting a Catholic charity, before the men proceeded to blow the money on luxury hotels and meals, trips to Brazil, shopping sprees in London and other decidedly non-charitable expenditures.

But, Fittipaldi says, the pope's attempt to clamp down on journalists covering these problems will do little to resolve them. If there's one thing he learned in his research on the Vatican, he says, it is just how isolated Pope Francis is in his drive for reform.

"There are groups in the curia that don't want to change and want to maintain their privilege and they're hoping to make an example of us," he says. "The pope wants reform. But he's much more alone and his task much more arduous than we ever imagined."

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