Another PR disaster for Pope Francis

if you asked a tabloid journalist to concoct the juiciest ever story, he could hardly have done better. It involves corruption, priestly sex, a young temptress, women's underwear and Silvio Berlusconi. The Pope will have a job on his hands managing this one

Pope Francis has a lot on his plate
Tim Hedges
On 7 December 2015 10:05

Pope Francis has returned from a successful trip to central Africa to a veritable domestic storm. The press are calling it Vatileaks II. The first episode of this, you may remember, involved blackmail and some documents leaked by Pope Benedict's butler.

I don't suppose Francis has a butler, but the press is relishing the new scandal. Indeed if you asked a tabloid journalist to concoct the juiciest ever story, he could hardly have done better. It involves corruption, priestly sex, a young temptress, women's underwear, and Silvio Berlusconi.

It began with two journalists, Emiliano Fittipaldi and Gianluigi Nuzzi, who have written books on financial waste in the Vatican. They managed a few juicy exposures, including how much you had to bribe officials to get someone made a saint, but nothing really meaty to establish an existential threat to the Church.

Indeed, this is the sort of stuff which should be grist to the mill of this reforming pope. Instead, the Vatican made a daft mistake. Rather than promising to clean out its own stables in a humble, Christian way, it used a law passed by Francis after the first Vatileaks, and issued arrest warrants for four people, including Fittipaldi and Nuzzi.

Arresting two journalists has of itself gone down badly in a country which prides itself on a free press. Politicians are already involving themselves and several have urged Prime Minister Renzi to make diplomatic representations to the Holy See, which of course is a separate country.

The two attended a hearing in the Vatican in which they say they were not properly advised of the charges against them. If the case reaches a conclusion the Government will have to decide whether to approve extradition, in a rare test of the Vatican's independence treaty.

The other two arrests were of Monsignor Vallejo Balda, a trusted Vatican insider, and the exotically named and exotic looking Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, a (self) publicist who used to work for accountants Ernst & Young. Both were members of the Commission Francis set up to examine spending and procedures in the Holy See.

It is what has come out in the pleadings and in the press leaks which makes the case so interesting. Balda, the only one held in prison in the Vatican, said at first that he was troubled by the attractiveness of Chaouqui, and was concerned for his vow of celibacy.

Now he is saying that his vow went out of the window of a hotel in Florence shortly after Christmas last year. Chaouqui denies any such relations took place, saying that she is satisfied, and indeed pregnant, with her partner, a computer programmer who is also under investigation in this case.

Balda replies -- why, I really don't know -- that there is evidence of their night together in the form of her baby doll nightie, and that the item ("il baby doll" in Italian, in case you ever need it) is being held by the hotel which will confirm it was found in his room. There is a delicious Garden of Eden flavour to this, of the innocent male corrupted for eternity by the scheming female, which I am sure His Holiness will enjoy.

And, of course, plenty of investigation has gone into Chaouqui herself. Not that investigation is necessary given her talent for self publicity: immediately after her release on bail she got herself on to a television chat show to discuss her lack of involvement in the case.

She first came to public attention when she organised a celebrity, ticket only, mass in the Vatican for her contacts, to celebrate the election of Francis. Her non-lover Balda gave communion using a crystal cup. Afterwards there were drinks on the terrace. The whole thing cost the Church €13,000.

But she seems to be extraordinarily well connected. A Roman countess who is close to the Agnelli (FIAT) family; the parents of Prime Minister Renzi whom she offered to introduce to the Pope but failed; several politicians who seem to have acted as protectors, the list is long.

But one was missing, until recently. It is said that she was blackmailing Silvio Berlusconi and his brother Paolo, who is editor of the family newspaper il Giornale, on the grounds that Silvio had accounts at the Vatican Bank. Imagine! Her price was that il Giornale stop printing stories about her.

I suggested some years ago that the Vatican employ Peter Mandelson as a spin doctor, because he is the best. Instead someone they did employ is at the centre of the scandal, charged under a law passed by Francis himself.

It has been an almighty cock-up from start to finish. You wouldn't have caught Mandelson leaving his baby dolls in a Florentine hotel.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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