What the Vatican’s decision to charge five people over alleged leaks really means

Investigative journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, holds a copy of Avarice, his book exposing Vatican scandals (AP)

The announcement that five people, including two journalists, allegedly responsible for latest round of leaks are to be charged under the laws of the Vatican City State, has generated considerable reaction and looks likely to generate more.

Last week, before the charges were even announced, the magazine Commonweal posted an article by Paul Moses calling the action “an effort to intimidate journalists from reporting the truth” and the “criminalising [of] investigative reporting”.

There will be a great deal of ink spilled in the coming weeks about a Vatican vendetta against truth and transparency, and how this shows that the Curia still considers itself above scrutiny. Cutting through the hyperbole, the decision to include the journalists in the indictments is seriously ill-judged and distracts from the real breach of law and trust that was committed by the leakers themselves.

Most governments seek to find a balance between respecting a free press and reserving the right to keep fundamental issues of governance confidential. In the case of the ongoing financial reform of the Curia we are talking about a wholesale restructuring of a state and a global Church, and these are fundamental issues of governmental integrity. For this reason the leaking of sensitive documents of state is and should be a criminal offence.

While it is seriously unlikely the journalists will actually be convicted, exactly because of the concerns that are being voiced, allowing the focus of attention to shift away from the leakers and on to issues of a free press shows a worrying blindness by the Vatican authorities to the real scandal.

The true scandal is that the alleged leakers were themselves brought in by Francis to help change the system from within. It would be both a tragedy and an outrage if the Vatican determined that they had found no better use for their positions and mandate for reform than to fall in with the worst behaviour they were charged with changing.

We are seeing the emergence of a sad pattern in which the Pope’s reforming agenda is being derailed by the very people charged with carrying it out. It is extremely telling that the most common target of leaks and rumours in the Curia right now is Cardinal Pell, the only true cultural outsider to the cosy Italian way of doing things. It is beginning to look like Francis’s reforms are being set up for failure in the usual Roman way, and he cannot even rely on those he appointed himself.