The Opus Dei priest and the sexy temptress - The real-life Vatican scandal that has rocked the Church in Rome
Michael Kelly on the real-life Vatican scandal that has rocked the Church in Rome to its core and reads like a raunchy 'Da Vinci Code' sequel
If novelist Dan Browne penned a tome, the gist of which had a female aide of the Pope seducing a monsignor to steal Vatican secrets, papal spokesmen would be aghast. Dismissals of the book as "mere fantasy" would surely be immediately forthcoming.
But more often than not, fact is stranger than fiction, and the latest dispatches from Rome make for salacious reading. Francesca Chaouqui, who was a key adviser to Pope Francis on economic reform, now stands accused of sleeping with Spanish priest Msgr Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda on the pretext of receiving documents about alleged financial mismanagement which prosecutors claim she duly leaked to the press.
Chaouqui strenuously denies the sexual relationship and that she leaked any documents. The fact that Balda is linked to the notoriously secretive Opus Dei movement within the Church has only added to the intrigue. It was Browne's The Da Vinci Code that made famous in the popular imagination Opus Dei by way of the character of the murderous monk Silas. But not even Browne's stretched imagination could scarcely have written the latest saga.
Vatileaks has become the byword for scandals that have rocked the Holy See in recent years. Pope Benedict XVI resigned just weeks after receiving a 300-page dossier on the scandal that reached its height under his tenure with the trial and imprisonment of his butler, Paolo Gabriele, for stealing files from the papal apartment.
The German pontiff left the dossier for his successor and when cardinals gathered in Rome in March 2013 to elect a new pope, reform was on their mind. They got their man in Jorge Bergoglio who chose the name Francis.
Almost from day one, the Argentine Jesuit, who had made a point of spending very little time in Rome, signalled that things were going to be different. Inevitably, opposition to his reform agenda grew within certain vested interests at the heart of the Church bureaucracy known as the Roman Curia.
But, the current Vatileaks scandal has the potential to make the trial of the light-fingered butler seem like a storm in an espresso cup. For a start, the latest shenanigans have two elements that always pique human interest: sex and money. And the Italian media has gone in to overdrive. In the land that gave the world the 'bunga bunga' sex parties of former premier Silvio Berlusconi, Chaouqui has been described as a "sex bomb".
In a culture where men are often seen as powerless to resist the charm of women, the hapless Spanish monsignor has been portrayed by some in the media as a victim, a role he seems delighted to fill.
Unlike the butler, who from the moment of his arrest admitted his role in stealing documents, the heavily pregnant Chaouqui has come out fighting insisting that she is innocent of all charges. She will be tried under the laws of Vatican City State and, if found guilty, faces up to eight years in prison.
Pope Francis has taken what many see as an uncharacteristically rigid line on the issue describing the leaks as a "deplorable crime". He has even publicly suggested that Chaouqui may have been motivated by umbrage at not receiving a permanent job at the Vatican, a suggestion she dismisses.
But, for a woman who protests her innocence, she is remarkably resigned about the prospect of a potential prison sentence if found guilty. "The Pope is not just a head of state, he is the head of my religion, he is God on Earth. If they find that I am guilty, I must go [to jail], I have no choice," she said in a recent interview.
The documents in question relate to allegations of lavish spending of charitable funds by senior Vatican officials, a fact that makes the Pope's hard-line approach all the more curious given that such revelations would surely strengthen his case for reform with the world's bishops.
For his part, Balda has admitted leaking the documents, but claims it was only after Chaouqui seduced him and they had sex in a Florence hotel room.
Chaouqui, pugnacious as ever, has fired back in a series of posts on her Facebook and Twitter pages rejecting his claims, appearing to imply that the Spanish prelate may be homosexual.
"From what I know of Balda, the last thing he wants to do is go to bed with me". In another message she wrote: "I am someone who knows millionaires and emirs. If I wanted to betray my husband, I wouldn't do it with an old priest who does not like women."
When both were seated together at a December 7 trial hearing in the tiny Vatican courtroom, they ignored one another. The case has now been postponed until next month at the earliest as defence lawyers sought an adjournment to study the Vatican's evidence.
It's clear from her frequent posts on social media and constant presence in the Italian media that Chaouqui sees herself as a pawn in a much larger game, a martyr even.
"I'll fight like a lion all the way to the end to bring the truth to light," she said this week, "but the problem is that the outcome of the trial has already been decided at a table someplace."
She says that perhaps only the spectacle of sending an innocent woman to jail and forcing her to give birth to the child she's expecting behind bars, will expose the true corruption that she believes is at the heart of the charges laid against her.
"They'll feel obligated to clean things up and to put on trial the people who actually steal… who are guilty of extremely serious financial crimes," she said this week.
Perhaps copper-fastening her self-identity as a martyr for a reformed Curia, she has pledged to name her unborn son Peter in honour of the Pope.
This year marks what Pope Francis has called a 'Year of Mercy', and many commentators have suggested that if found guilty - as she fully expects - she will be granted a pardon. However, she has insisted that under no circumstances will she ask for, or accept, a papal pardon.
If Chaouqui is to go down, she's determined to create a public spectacle of her trial. Last month, against the protests of prosecutors, she managed to convince the Vatican court to call a slew of senior cardinals for cross examination.
Her game plan, some expect, is to force officials to reveal under oath what they know about alleged financial mismanagement by their senior colleagues, provoking more controversy and meaning that the actual leaks fade in to insignificance. After all, for a Pope who has made his reputation talking about reform and cleaning up the Vatican, it would be quite the spectacle to persecute those accused of leaking documents while ignoring the alleged financial misdeeds exposed in those same leaks.
It's a game of high stakes, and one that Chaouqui, handpicked by Pope Francis because of her skill in public relations, is eminently qualified to play.
Michael Kelly is Editor of The Irish Catholic