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Investigating the Vatican

By Alessia Cerantola

One morning in the early 1990s, two investigative journalists Leo Sisti and Leonardo Coen made an appointment with a priest at a kiosk near St. Petersburg. Peter's Basilica. A car secretly picked them up and brought them into the Vatican. There, they met Bishop Donato de Bonis.

Sisti and Coen were there for an interview regarding a major financial scandal involving Paul Marcinkus, the American archbishop who served as president of the Vatican Bank.

In the interview, Sisti recalls, the bishop was tired of answering "the prickly list of questions from the two journalists, that he stood by a window trying to straighten out the facts.

"We have a history of two thousand years," he said, pointing to the pitch in front of them. “There are some who try to poison or demonize the Vatican… like a British writer a century ago. But who remembers his name? It has been erased from people's memories. On the contrary, we are still here. "

Despite such warnings, the two journalists published a book in 1991 about the Vatican bank financial scandal entitled The Marcinkus Case. The book sold thousands of copies, with great success in South America.

More than a quarter of a century later, the work of journalists in Italy to cover and report on scandals about the Church has changed. The news media dedicate more space to stories like these, while internal factions within the Church have benefited reporters covering the Vatican. But working on this topic is still quite difficult. During the seven months to July this year, two Italian journalists were charged under the Church's judicial system, accused of disseminating leaked information from the Vatican.

In a curious case, Emiliano Fittipaldi, a reporter for the left-wing weekly magazine l'Espresso, chose the launch date of his book. Avarizia (Greed) in November 2015 at the same time Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), written by Gianluigi Nuzzi, a journalist who has a more conservative reader. Both papers address the mismanagement of the Holy See's finances, and each is based on internal documents provided by insider sources.

For Fittipaldi, apart from difficulties in research, one of her biggest challenges during the investigation was feeling isolated. He has endured harsh criticism from fellow journalists, especially those who have specifically covered the Pope and the Church.

Among the accusations leveled against him were that "he had been exploited by his sources," Fittipaldi said in a telephone interview.

The trial, known as Vatileaks 2, is a highlight for journalists' freedom to cover the Vatican. "The Vatican prosecutor pressured me because I asked some questions, which are part of my job," said Fittipaldi, who along with colleagues are reportedly facing eight years in prison.

At the end of the trial, after a number of pauses, high levels of tension and legal techniques, two former members of the papal oversight commission in this case were found guilty, charged with conspiring to leak classified information to the media. But the Vatican court stated that they had no jurisdiction to try the two journalists because the crimes did not occur in Vatican City.

Father Federico Lombardi, then spokesman for the Vatican and director of the Holy See media office, explained that the trial had to be conducted in accordance with the applicable law. But, he added, "also within the jurisdiction of the Vatican, press freedom is maintained."

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Change of Atmosphere

In recent years, the Vatican has undertaken lengthy reviews to make the media system more efficient and information more accessible.

Signs of transparency have been observed by many journalists, such as Amalia De Simone. One of his last stories was an investigation in text and video form for the daily Corriere della Sera, in which she reports on a series of violent practices denounced by nuns from the Immacolata Institute, not far from Naples. "After the election of Pope Francis, the new atmosphere made the newspapers less concerned with news critical of the Church," he told me hopefully. "Maybe something is changing."

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But for that change to take place, it would require a major shift in how church power is generally viewed and portrayed. De Simone admits sources remain reluctant to turn up and fight the Church. "Encouraging victims to speak up is a challenge, even more difficult than victims of organized crime," he said.

As part of a process to strengthen its financial accountability, Holy See has also signed international agreements, including a 2015 pact with Italy's Minister of Economy and Finance to exchange information between the two countries. That same year, the Pope pointedly asked the Vatican Bank to base its management on the "standards of morality, consistent efficiency and practices that respect the distinctiveness" of the institution.

To defend itself against media accusations, a local church, in an extremely rare move, even decided to reveal the names and addresses of their wealth.

Following an investigation in 2015 by Giovanni Viafora for the daily Corriere della Sera, in which it exposed the complex financial structure of the church in the city of Padua, the local church bulletin published a five-page response detailing their assets. The bulletin accused the Corriere della Sera newspaper and its reporters of carrying an offensive tone. But Vaifora's findings were basically confirmed.

The newspaper received letters of support from local pastors asking for changes in the church, and one of them even publicly called for a more transparent church in his Saturday sermons. The nomination of a new bishop, a person known for his simplicity and simplicity, was translated as a sign for a new direction.

Asked about the most difficult part of exploring the story, Viafora talks about living in a world with limited languages. "Speaking of their accounts, priests try to avoid the word money, as if it had nothing to do with it," he explains. "Money is considered a devil."

But he said that every time the media wrote new stories about the church, the public seemed to accept it with new shock and an increasingly strong reaction. "There is a need to be more courageous and continue to denounce mistakes at the national and local levels," said Viafora. "Especially in the church." (*)

Journalist Alessia Cerantola is a founder and reporter for Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI) and the daily web news service Radio Bullets. Fluent in Italian, English, and Japanese, he has been awarded several awards, including the 2012 Freedom of the Press Award by Reporters Without Borders and UNESCO (Austria).


“Investigating The Vatican” by Alessia Cerantola, published on the Global Investigative Journalism Network website, 7 October 2016

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