Mar 14, 2016

Mobile phone hidden inside hollowed-out religious book 'smuggled to prelate under detention'

Nick Squires
March 14, 2016

Trial of Spanish monsignor and four others accused of leaking and publishing confidential Holy See documents resumes on Monday

A mobile phone hidden inside a Catholic religious book was smuggled to a Vatican prelate who is in detention for allegedly leaking confidential Holy See documents to investigative journalists, according to local media.

Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda is one of five people accused of leaking and publishing classified Vatican documents, with their trial inside the walls of the tiny city state to resume on Monday.

Since December the Spanish prelate has been held in a building inside the Vatican under house arrest.

But at the weekend the Vatican announced that he had been effectively rearrested and returned to a cell inside the barracks of the Vatican Gendarmerie, the sovereign state’s tiny police force, because he had “violated a ban on communicating with the outside world.”

It had been one of the conditions by which he was kept under house arrest, said the Rev Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.

A website devoted to Vatican affairs claimed that the Spanish monsignor had been caught calling friends and supporters with a mobile phone that was smuggled to him in a hollowed-out copy of The Writings of St Francis.

The website, Infovaticana, obtained a photograph of what it said was the religious tome, with a neat square hole carved out of its pages.

It claimed that the prelate was deeply unhappy that he had not been able to choose his own lawyer but had been given one by the Vatican's judicial authorities.

He was also believed to be dismayed at the conditions under which he was being kept, as the Vatican’s only prisoner, likening it to the Castro regime in Cuba.

Until he was returned to the Vatican gendarmerie cell, he was being held in an apartment where a disgraced Vatican ambassador, Jozef Wesolowski, was kept pending his trial.

Archbishop Wesolowski was accused of sexually abusing teenage boys in the Dominican Republic, where he was posted. But he died suddenly last August, with the Vatican saying he had suffered a cardiac arrest.

"Balda is in fear of his life," said Gabriel Ariza, the editor of Infovaticana. "He told me in a letter. He was being kept under house arrest in the same room where Wesolowski was found dead in mysterious circumstances."

The other defendants in the high-profile trial are – Nicola Maio, an aide to Monsignor Balda; Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fitipaldi, two Italian journalists who wrote best-selling books based on the leaked documents; and Francesca Chaouqui, an Italian-Moroccan public relations expert recruited by a Vatican commission on economic reform.

The books written by the journalists revealed mismanagement, waste and extravagant spending by cardinals, as well as trenchant resistance to Pope Francis’ drive for greater accountability and transparency in the Vatican’s finances.

The trial revolves not just around secrets and lies but sex, too. Monsignor Balda has claimed that he was seduced by Ms Chaouqui when they worked together on a Vatican finance commission.

He has claimed the two went to bed together in a hotel in Florence last year, saying that she left a skimpy nightie, known as a "baby doll", in his room.

Ms Chaouqui, who is married and now pregnant by her husband, has strenuously denied having an affair with the priest. The trial began in November.

The defendants face up to eight years in prison under tough laws introduced by Pope Francis in 2013 in the wake of a previous scandal over leaked documents that involved Pope Benedict XVI’s butler.

The Vatican has been sharply criticised for its decision to try the two journalists, with media organisations accusing the Holy See of seeking to quash press freedom.

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