Two members of a commission Pope Francis set up to study reforms, including a Spanish prelate and a public relations expert, were arrested for allegedly stealing and leaking confidential documents, the second scandal that hit the institution in three years, the Vatican said on Monday.
The Vatican said in a statement that Spanish Monsignor Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda, number two at the Vatican's Prefecture for Economic Affairs, and an Italian woman Francesca Chaouqui who is a public relations expert, were arrested over the weekend.
The arrests were part of an investigation into the "misappropriation and disclosure of classified documents and information", that lasted several months.
It has so far been one of the biggest internal scandals to hit Francis’ papacy. The scandal reminded the “Vatileaks” furore that preceded former Pope Benedict’s resignation in 2013.
The Vatican said the leaks were "serious betrayal of the trust bestowed by the pope", without giving further information. There was no immediate comment either from Vallejo Balda and Chaouqui or their lawyers.
Vallejo Balda, 54, was the highest-ranking member of the Vatican’s central bureaucracy, also known as the Curia, to have ever been arrested.
Chaouqui, 33, raised Vatican’s concerns over “inappropriate photo” of herself on her Facebook page when she was appointed to Francis’ commission by the pope in 2013. She was also highly critical of the Vatican on Twitter.
Both of them were members of Pope Francis’ commission that he set up shortly after his election to advise him on economic and bureaucratic reforms in the Curia.
The commission handed a report to Francis last year. After the report, the pope made some changes in Vatican administration such as the establishment of a new economic ministry.
Chaouqui was reportedly released by Vatican prosecutor Roberto Zannotti on Monday because she agreed to collaborate with the investigators, the statement said.
Vallejo Balda is currently languishing in a Vatican jail and expressed his “surprise and pain” over the arrest.
The arrests came just days before two Italian authors were due to release books believed to be based on leaks from hackers releasing information including Vatican’s finances and alleged conspiracies by the old guard to undermine Francis’ reform efforts that would cause new scandals in Vatican, their publisher said.
In 2012, Pope Benedict’s butler Paolo Gabriele, was arrested and sentenced to 18 months for stealing and leaking documents from the pope’s desk.
He served several months in the Vatican jail before pardoned by Pope Benedict. He is now working in a Vatican-run hospital.
Those documents included letters to the pope from Vatican officials about their complaints to the former pope over alleged corruption in the Holy See.
"As far as the books announced for the coming days go, it is clear that this time too, just as in the past, they are the fruit of a serious betrayal of the pope's trust," the Vatican statement said.
One of the two books due to be released on Wednesday is “Merchants in the Temple” by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi. He follows his 2012 book “His Holiness” based on the leaked documents he received from Benedict’s butler Gabriele in a scandal.
It was believed that the scandal was the reason lying behind the pope’s historic resignation.
The other book is “Avarice: Documents Revealing Wealth, Scandals and Secrets of Francis' Church” by Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi who writes for L'Espresso Newsweekly, a willing publisher for leaks in recent years.
In the statement, Vatican accused the two Italian authors of using stolen documents saying that this was "a gravely illegal act."
Such books "generate confusing and partial, tendentious interpretations," the statement said adding that the Vatican might demand Italian authorities to take action against the two authors.
Religious expert John Allen said that it was “a new proactive strategy for the Vatican.”
"Rather than waiting for the bomb to go off before trying to defuse it, this time the Vatican is trying to shift the conversation before the books even come out,” Allen said.
"How successful that strategy will be may depend on exactly what the books contain," he said, adding that the Vatican had in any case "all but guaranteed these arrests will be a media sensation".
It was the third scandal this year that the Vatican has had to cope with the leaks.
In June, Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on the environment was stolen and leaked before publication.
Last month a Italian magazine published a private letter from 13 conservative cardinals complaining about a meeting of bishops on family issues.