BERLIN — The Vatican on Monday said it had arrested two members of a papal reform commission on suspicion of leaking classified information, opening a week of intrigue as the Holy See braces for two potentially damaging books purporting to reveal inside corruption.
The stunning detentions of two Pope Francis advisers also could become personal blows to the pontiff and further expose the internal Vatican rifts between Francis’s ideological allies and factions opposing his effort put his reformist stamp on the church.
Meanwhile, the upcoming books — including one by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi whose 2012 book on a so-called “Vatileaks” scandal rocked the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI — are set to offer fresh revelations into fraud and mismanagement as well as challenges to Francis’s push for changes that reach into the Vatican’s inner workings.
In a statement, the Vatican appeared to tie any bombshells in the upcoming books to two sources: Spanish priest the Rev. Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda, former secretary of Francis’s financial and bureaucratic reform committee, and Francesca Chaouqui, an Italian public relations executive tapped in 2013 to bring a touch of modern thinking to the Holy See and who became known in some circles as the “the pope’s lobbyist.”
The Vatican said both suspects were brought in for questioning over the weekend, and were later held under arrest. Chaouqui was released on Monday after pledging to cooperate with the investigation, the Vatican said. Balda, however, was still being detained.
Both were arrested following a months long criminal investigation carried out by the Vatican gendarmerie, and face potential charges under a 2013 law that made it illegal in the Holy See to disclose confidential documents and information.
Balda, a 54-year-old monsignor and veteran of Vatican affairs, was hand picked by Francis help guide his bid to overhaul the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Curia.
He is among those who tapped Chaouqui, 33, to join Francis’s influential reform commission. She became a lighting rod in Vatican City after posting alluring photos of herself on Facebook and sending critical tweets about the Vatican, calling one official “corrupt.”
In an interview with the Boston Globe last year, she said enemies of the pope were responsible for the criticisms against her.
“Unfortunately for the peace of mind of those enemies, we’re still here and the reform is still happening,” she said.
Francis, according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, was briefed on the arrests before they happened. The investigation was managed by the Vatican’s gendarmerie corps, which controls most security, law enforcement and fire fighting coordination in the city-state apart from direct papal protection, which is handled by the famed Swiss Guard.
The gendarmes, which dress in police-style uniforms, works closely with Italian authorities under a more than 85-year-old treaty that defined modern Vatican City. The corps also has general autonomy and does not need papal approval to make arrests — although high-profile actions and investigations are likely to have high-level Vatican oversight.
Asked whether the pope would intervene in the judicial process, Lombardi would only say that said the Francis “respects the competence of Vatican institutions.”
In announcing the extraordinary arrests, the Vatican seemed to foreshadow the pending release of potentially damaging information and suggested it may pursue legal action against the authors.
“As for the books announced for publication in the next few days, let it be clearly stated at this time, as in the past, that such actions are a serious betrayal of trust granted by the Pope,” the statement said.
It called the authors part of “an operation that takes advantage of a seriously unlawful act of unlawful delivery of confidential documents – an operation whose legal implications and possibly penalties are under study.” Both books are due out Thursday.
The books appear to touch on Vatican’s internal tensions from Francis’ push for more openness within the vast network of offices and panels that guides the administration of the church, whose operations have been widely veiled in secrecy for centuries.
The Vatican’s bureaucracy covers major decisions such as how money is spent and how church jobs are apportioned, to smaller details such operations of the Vatican postal service and funds from church collections.
Francis’s efforts at more accountability have met resistance from groups within the Vatican, where conservatives also have opposed the pope’s outreach to divorced Catholics and others once shunned by the church.
The arrests brought to the surface a sense of tension that had been building in the Vatican for months as officials there have waited for the books to be released.
Nuzzi’s book, “Merchants in the Temple,” draws on documents, interviews and recordings of Francis speaking in closed-door meetings, according to Nuzzi’s publisher Chiarelettere.
The pope is quoted as dressing down his “top brass,” saying “costs are out of control” and demanding transparency after finding “unofficial budgets” which detailed funds allegedly misused by Vatican officials, according to Chiarelettere. The book also looks at attempts to allegedly sabotage Francis’s reforms, and curb other initiatives such as seeking to tone down the lavish life of some cardinals and controlling misuse of money collected in church offerings.
“If we don’t know how to safeguard our money, which can be seen, how can we safeguard the souls of the faithful, which cannot be seen?” Francis is quoted in the book as telling a meeting of his hierarchy, according to Chiarelettere.
The book also purports to unveil the full explanation behind Benedict’s shock decision to retire in 2013, a year after documents stolen by his butler were made public amid suggestions corruption and infighting within the Benedict papacy.
The second book by Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi of L’Espresso magazine — whose Vatican leaks include a draft of a papal encyclical on the environment last June — deals with financial and other scandals inside the Vatican. Titled “Avarice: Documents Revealing Wealth, Scandals and Secrets of Francis’ Church.”
In an interview on Monday, Fittipaldi claimed the two people arrested by the Vatican were not his sources.
“I wish that [the arrested individuals] will prove to the gendarmes that they did not commit those crimes, of which I have no awareness except for what I read [in the Vatican] press release.”
In a related probe, Italian media reported last week that Vatican forensic experts were investigating alleged tampering of the computer used by the church’s top auditor, Libero Milone, who was appointed a few months ago.
Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.