VATICAN CITY >> A Vatican court declared Thursday it had no jurisdiction to prosecute two journalists who wrote books based in part on confidential documents exposing greed, mismanagement and corruption in the Holy See, ending a trial that drew scorn from media rights groups.
The court did convict a Vatican monsignor and an Italian public relations expert for having conspired to leak documents, but cleared them of having formed a criminal association to do so. A fifth defendant, the monsignor's secretary, was absolved of all charges.
The verdict was an embarrassment to Vatican prosecutors, who had accused journalists Emiliano Fittipaldi and Gianluigi Nuzzi of conspiring and putting pressure on the three other defendants to get the information. Prosecutors had accused the three of forming a shady, secretive criminal organization that conspired to reveal confidential Vatican documents.
In the end, the president of the four-judge tribunal, Judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre, asserted the Vatican had no jurisdiction over the journalists and ruled there wasn't enough evidence to show that any such criminal organization existed.
Speaking in the name of Pope Francis, Dalla Torre prefaced his sentence by insisting that the freedom of the press was enshrined in the Vatican legal code and that freedom of thought was "guaranteed by divine law."
Fittipaldi and Nuzzi wrote blockbuster books last year based on Vatican documents exposing the greed of bishops and cardinals angling for big apartments, the extraordinarily high costs of getting a saint made, and the loss to the Holy See of millions of euros in rental income because of undervalued real estate.
The documentation had been compiled by a pontifical commission ordered by Francis to gather information about Vatican finances to make them more transparent and efficient.
Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda, the reform commission's No. 2, admitted in court that he gave Nuzzi 85 passwords to password-protected documents. He denied the journalists threatened him and put the blame of feeling pressured on Francesca Chaouqui, the communications consultant who was also a member of the commission.
The court convicted Vallejo of passing documents to the journalists and sentenced him to 18 months in prison. While clearing Chaouqui of actually passing documents, the court found her guilty of conspiring with Vallejo and sentenced her to a 10-month suspended sentence.
The fifth defendant, Nicola Maio, was cleared.
It wasn't immediately clear if anyone would appeal. Chaouqui, who recently gave birth, had said she would have gone to prison, babe in arms, rather than appeal a conviction or ask for a papal pardon.
Publishing confidential information is a crime in the Vatican, punishable by up to eight years in prison.
The journalists are Italian and had challenged the Vatican's jurisdiction to prosecute them. Prosecutors had asserted jurisdiction over them anyway, but the court rejected that argument. It declared it had no jurisdiction since Fittipaldi and Nuzzi were not Vatican public officials and the alleged crime didn't take place on Vatican territory.
In fact, in the sentence, Dalla Torre recalled that the 2013 Vatican law that criminalized publishing reserved information only applied to Vatican public officials exercising their official jobs, suggesting that the law will not be applied in the future to ordinary journalists operating outside of the Vatican City State.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and other media watchdog organizations had criticized the trial and called on the Vatican to drop the charges, saying journalists must be allowed to do their jobs without fear of repercussions.
They praised the decision but said the trial never should have gone forward.
"Their trial cast a chilling effect on covering the Vatican," said Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"By writing these books, we repeated that they just exercised their right to provide information in the public interest and should not have been treated as criminals in a state that supposedly respects media freedom," said Pauline Adès-Mével, head of the Reporters Without Borders' Europe desk.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, defended the prosecutors for going ahead with what he said was an arguably unpopular prosecution, saying the Vatican has a law on its books criminalizing the publication of reserved information that must be applied.
The journalists had denounced the Vatican for putting them on trial rather than the priests and laymen whose wrongdoing they uncovered, calling the proceedings a "farce," since prosecutors accused them of being part of a criminal conspiracy by their mere "availability" to receive information.
But they praised the verdict as a sign the Vatican realized the error, and attributed the turnabout to Francis' pontificate.
"This has been a Kafkaesque process for what concern the charges, but its conclusion, in my opinion, has been very positive," Fittipaldi said outside the tribunal.
The case has had several surreal moments. At its start, the journalists complained they had only seen the court file a few hours before the first hearing. Then Francis, the Vatican's supreme legislator, executive and judge, intervened to insist that the defense be given more time after the court tried to rush the trial through in two weeks.
Then Vallejo was put back under house arrest after a friend sneaked a cellphone to him inside a cake. Finally, Chaouqui's son, Pietro, was born June 14 and was brought to court every day since.
The only criminal investigation that has been opened stemming from the journalists' revelations of wrongdoing concerned the transfer of 400,000 euros ($444,000) from the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu pediatric hospital to pay for renovations on the attic of the Vatican's former No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
The hospital's former president and treasurer are under investigation by Vatican prosecutors. Bertone has said he was unaware of the payment but has nevertheless repaid the hospital 150,000 euros ($166,000). He was not put under investigation.
In 2012, in the first document leaks scandal before the same Vatican tribunal, Pope Benedict XVI's butler was convicted of giving Nuzzi confidential documents that painted Bertone in a bad light and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Benedict eventually pardoned the butler.
Nuzzi wasn't charged in that case, but the Vatican City State later criminalized the publication of confidential information.