Vatican number two, Pope's friends summoned to leaks trial

Vatican City (AFP) - Pietro Parolin, the most senior cardinal in the Vatican hierarchy, and two close associates of Pope Francis can be summoned to give evidence in a controversial trial of journalists and alleged whistleblowers, a judge ruled Monday.

Overruling objections from the Vatican prosecutor, the judge agreed to putting the Holy See's Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, on the stand, as well as Francis confidantes Cardinal Santo Abril y Castello and Archbishop Konrad Krajewski.

The decision raises the prospect of the church's dirty linen being laundered in public, with Parolin in particular likely to be quizzed over the bitter internal battle that has erupted in the hierarchy as vested interests resist Francis's drive to clean up Holy See finances.

The senior clerics are to be summoned to give evidence on behalf of Francesca Chaouqui, a former PR consultant to the Vatican who is one of the five people accused of conspiring to leak classified documents that exposed out-of-control spending at the top of the church.

Chaouqui's lawyer told a hearing on Monday that she wanted the senior clerics to testify in order to demonstrate that she was working "only in the interests of the pope."

Krajewski is Francis's point-man for charitable works while Spanish cardinal Abril is a long-standing friend of the pontiff's who last year was appointed as president of the commission overseeing the scandal-hit Institute of Religious Works (IOR), better known as the Vatican bank.

All the defendants, including two Italian investigative reporters, face potential prison terms of up to eight years under draconian anti-leaks legislation enacted by the Vatican in 2013.

The judge on Monday threw out an attempt by Chaouqui's lawyers to challenge the jurisdiction of the court but accepted requests for email, text and WhatsApp conversations between the defendants to be supplemented by deleted messages not included in the court files.

The case was adjourned pending the appointment of a technical consultant to carry out the task and is not expected to resume until next year.

- Sexual advances -

Chaouqui is accused of conspiring with Spanish Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda and his assistant Nicola Maio to leak secret documents to which they had access as members of a commission appointed by Francis to spearhead a financial clean-up shortly after his election in 2013.

The Vatican has been widely criticised for pursuing the prosecution of the reporters in a case that has generated damaging headlines.

Last week, it emerged that Vallejo Balda is claiming he leaked the documents at Chaouqui's behest because he was besotted with her and had been sorely tempted to succumb to her sexual advances. She says he acted alone and has rubbished claims of an intense flirtation.

In court on Monday, the Spanish priest's lawyer asked if a psychological assessment of his client could be undertaken, arguing it would show he was particularly vulnerable to being influenced at the time of the alleged crime.

The request was rejected but the defence will be allowed to present a psychiatrist's assessment of the monsignor's mental health carried out before his arrest last month.

Vallejo has been in detention in a police cell since November 2 and now faces the prospect of spending Christmas behind bars.

The two journalists on trial, Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, have published books based on the documents at the heart of the trial.

They depict the Vatican bureaucracy that Francis inherited in 2013 as being on the verge of implosion thanks to a cocktail of chronic over-spending, feeble accounting systems and serious irregularities in several departments which may have masked corruption.

One of their most striking revelations 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, partly to subsidise the luxurious lifestyles of certain Rome-based cardinals and partly to plug financing gaps arising from the institution's chronic lack of monetary controls.