Journalists acquitted, Spanish prelate guilty in Vatileaks

Vatican City (AFP) - Two investigative journalists accused of publishing stolen papers which exposed scandal in the Vatican were acquitted Thursday, while a whistle-blowing Spanish prelate was sentenced to jail time in the Vatileaks trial.

The drama of sex, greed and press freedom which had gripped the tiny city state for months peaked with the surprise verdict given by presiding judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre "in the name of his Holiness Pope Francis".

Italians Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, who had published books based on the documents at the heart of the trial, were not considered to have committed a crime on Vatican territory and therefore were outside the judges' territorial authority.

Spanish prelate Lucio Vallejo Balda, who had admitted to leaking secret papers, was handed a 18-month prison sentence while his assistant, who prosecutors admitted had had little to do with the affair, was acquitted.

Italian PR expert Francesca Chaouqui, who had been involved in a review of Vatican finances and is accused of both "inspiring" and being ultimately responsibility for the leaks, was given a 10-month suspended sentence.

Dalla Torre said there was no evidence Chaouqui had stolen documents, though she had played a role in the leaks.

Chaouqui told the media she had been punished for serving as a go-between between Balda and the journalists, but was relieved the pope would now know she was not guilty of whistle blowing, describing her acquittal on that count as "my biggest victory".

Balda and Chaouqui have three days to appeal the verdict.

- 'Tensions, polemics in Vatican' -

The trial "had to be done, to show the Vatican's determination to fight the existence and consequences of the tensions and internal polemics of the Vatican," spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

The leaks, he said, had "negative consequences on public opinion". But fighting them had "not put freedom of the press on trial".

Nuzzi told journalists outside the courthouse that it was "a historic day. This is the base of democracy, freedom of the press".

Fittipaldi described the trial as "Kafkaesque" but said in its ruling the Vatican had been "courageous", adding that he had not expected to be acquitted.

"Journalists have to do their job without being afraid of power. Here secrets were revealed that they wanted to cover up, but revealing them is just what we must do," he said.

The scandal, the second to hit the Vatican, rocked the Roman Catholic Church with its leaked accounts of theft and greed, as well as publication of secret recordings of Pope Francis's private conversations.

Among the most striking revelations in the books was that less than 20 percent of donations made by believers around the world under the Peter's Pence scheme ended up being spent on good works.

The rest was swallowed up by the Vatican bureaucracy, reportedly partly helping to subsidise the luxurious lifestyles of certain cardinals.

- Parties and plots -

The trial then ballooned into steamier fare, as Spanish monsignor Vallejo Balda and PR expert Chaouqui turned on each other in the witness box.

Details emerged of alleged sexual affairs, glitzy parties and secret plots in the corridors of power.

The prosecution had called for prison sentences for all, apart from Fittipaldi, saying he should be acquitted for lack of evidence.

Chaouqui, who gave birth three weeks ago, had made an emotional plea to the court earlier Thursday, saying she could not bear spending the first few years of her son's life behind bars.

Vallejo Balda had admitted to leaking the classified papers but said he had done so under pressure from Chaouqui, with whom he claimed to have a "compromising" relationship.

He also claimed he had been blackmailed by a woman he believed to have links to Italian secret services and other contacts in a "dangerous world".

All five were prosecuted under draconian anti-leaks legislation, rushed onto the Vatican statute book in 2013 as a result of the fallout from the first Vatileaks scandal, which centred on secrets divulged by the butler of now-retired pope Benedict XVI.

Butler Paolo Gabriele was sentenced to 18 months jail time in 2012 after stealing documents in a bid to "fight evil and corruption", and was pardoned by Benedict three months later and banished from the Vatican forever.

Extradition lawyer Alessandro Tirelli said finding the journalists guilty would likely have led to the Vatican requesting they be extradited from Italy, sparking "a polemical wave in the country of the sort the pope hopes to avoid".

He said he thought it probable Balda and Chaouqui would be pardoned by Francis and exiled from the tiny state.