‘Una Bomba’ Francesca Chaouqui points finger at Cardinal George Pell

Cardinal George Pell makes a statement on Thursday following a meeting with survivors of sex abuse. Cardinal George Pell’s handwritten statement. Photo: Nick Miller

Cardinal George Pell reads a statement to reporters as he leaves the Quirinale hotel after meeting with survivors of sex abuse.

Francesca Chaouqui also called “Lady Vatican” at home in Rome on Tuesday. Photo: Marco Di Lauro

Public relations expert and former member of the special commission on economic reforms of the Vatican Francesca Chaouqui arrives at the “Vatileaks 2.0” trial session at the Vatican on December 7, 2015. Photo: Theresa Ambrose

Chaouqui is shown in her Facebook profile photo; Lucio Balda is shown in a YouTube video. Photo: Facebook, YouTube.

Cardinal George Pell giving evidence this week: “this was the real Pell being slowly revealed”.

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“Did you meet with the Pope today? What did the Pope say?” asked a TV journalist, as Cardinal George Pell brushed past him with a little wave to the cameras, stepping into Rome’s Hotel Quirinale.

“I’ve got the full backing of the Pope,” Pell replied.

It was an odd reply: not quite an answer to the question posed. Of all the things the Pope may have said about an inquiry into historical abuse by Catholic priests in Australia, or the finances of the Vatican, this comment came first to the cardinal’s mind.

It spoke volumes.

And it was the first sign that on this, the second of four gruelling night-owl sessions of examination over video by Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Pell would be playing some bad defence.

This was the night of his soon-notorious comment about paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, “it’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me … I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils that Ridsdale had perpetrated” – a statement he desperately tried to row back later in the week, arguing he was confused about the context and misspoke.

This was the night he claimed no recollection of a meeting in which a paedophilic priest’s reassignment was discussed, “except to the effect that paedophilia was never mentioned”, a remarkable feat of memory.

This was the night he tried to excuse why a priest might not go beyond his job description to ensure the safety of children from abusers: “because [when] something is wrong, you can’t wave a magic wand and correct the situation easily”.

He even quibbled when asked “are you suggesting that a priest, who has knowledge of an abuse of a child but has no responsibility under canon law, is entitled … to do nothing?”

“Well … ,” began the cardinal.

Following Pell’s at times excruciating testimony, along with millions of other Catholics, was a young woman in Rome, Francesca Chaouqui.

Chaouqui, a controversial Vatican insider, had worked closely with Pell on reforming the Vatican’s opaque finances and she was appalled at what she was now seeing.

The only time the cardinal seemed comfortable was when the counsel assisting the commissioner was drawn into a philosophical discussion on the nature of group responsibility.

His prickly, hair-splitting, eyes-front demeanour relaxed, and there was a hint of the younger George Pell – an ambitious, whip-smart, academically minded and athletically talented Ballarat priest being groomed for the highest levels of Catholic power – while around him, to his claimed complete incomprehension, young boys were being groomed for abuse by a succession of evil clerics.

It was all just a “disastrous coincidence” there were so many abusers about at the time, he told the commission. No one informed him of the extent of the problems or he would have done something. When he was told of abuse, he passed the information straight to his superiors and accepted their ruling (even if it was to not do very much).

Pell, 74, learns from his mistakes. As archbishop of Melbourne, he instituted a program to help victims of abuse (though the commission last year said it had systemic problems, including discouraging victims from contacting police).

This week he also sought to redress the balance. On Thursday, with the commission hearings done, he met all the survivors of abuse who had come from Ballarat to face him at the hearing, and spent an hour in an emotional meeting with them, listening to their stories, empathising with their pain, and pledging his support to a planned centre for helping abuse survivors and preventing suicide.

In scenes remarkable in Rome, where cardinals – especially one as senior as Pell – are treated with reverence, after the meeting he stepped onto the pavement into a media pack and read a statement scrawled on hotel notepaper and written on terms requested by the survivors.

It was not quite Pope Francis-level humility, but in the eyes of the survivors, it was a start.

The commission moves on, back to Australia. Pell will be mentioned in its conclusions, and judging by the occasionally incredulous questions from the commissioner and his assisting counsel, he may be given a rough ride.

But he is safe.

Pell is, according to an unofficial but widely accepted measure agreed by the “Vaticanisti” media, the third-most powerful man in one of the world’s most powerful organisations.

He is the man who was in 2014 entrusted by Pope Francis with the hardest job in the Vatican: as prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy, he must clean the Augean Stables of two millennia of graft, slush funds, crimes petty and not-so-petty, mismanagement, economic illiteracy and just plain shoddy accounting.

This is a tough job, and technically a demotion from Archbishop of Sydney. But Pell has been chasing a job in Rome for years, some claim.

“He has obtained the much-desired Vatican passport,” Francesca Chaouqui says. “No one can touch him now. The cardinal is serene; Australia is far away.”

Chaouqui is not just any Vatican commentator. She is the “Una Bomba” the “sex bomb who embarrassed the Vatican”, to quote the more lurid labels in the Italian press.

She is the communications consultant who was brought onto Pope Francis’ hand-picked reform commission, COSEA, in 2013, figuring out how the Vatican could join the 21st century in accountability, finances and structure.

And now she faces prison, charged in a three-judge Vatican court on allegations of leaking COSEA documents to the media.

Chaouqui, 34, is writing a book on her time at the Vatican, and her Milan-based agent Vicki Satlow has asked her not to do media while she shops it around.

But Chaouqui said she couldn’t keep quiet when she saw Pell on the commission video feed. It made her furious. Reforming the Vatican was her life’s work, she says. She may go to prison over it – and she fears that Pell is not the man for the job.

Chaouqui is not the “sex bomb” PR type that the papers would have you believe. She lives in a working-families suburb in southern Rome, in an apartment with inspirational quotes written on the walls.

Her husband works in IT, and they are expecting a son in late June. She first met the cardinal when she started her work at COSEA. He was taking a keen interest.

One of the goals of COSEA was to design a new organisation for the Vatican economy – their eventual recommendation was to create the Secretariat of the Economy.

Pell was one of eight cardinals in a group created by Francis in April 2013 to reform the Curia and break its over-centralisation in Rome.

Chaouqui says – in broken English, helped by a translator – Pell was “like an ‘ombre’, a shadow in the commission”.

She claims Pell was trying to influence commission secretary Monsignor Lucio Balda – now a co-accused with Chaouqui in the Vatileaks 2.0 trial – and worked to “create a relationship” with other influential people in COSEA.

In December 2013, barely five months after COSEA had been created, “Cardinal Pell was talking with Monsignor Balda and saying we have to [work] very, very fast to organise the Secretariat for the Economy”.

Chaouqui saw him as an ally, working – like them – for reform. By February the next year, their recommendations had been finalised and were out of their hands. “We had to do everything very, very fast … just six months for the study it’s not a long time for the work that we had to do.”

It was only later that Chaouqui wondered, “Why the rush?” And she wondered why Pell had been pushing so hard.

“The focus is, I am thinking, [for him] to come very fast [from] Australia,” she says. “[Pell] would call Balda three times a day, he was in such a hurry that that was not normal. The focus of the commission [COSEA]: it’s not a studied thing but it is to create this organ and [bring] Cardinal Pell here.”

She is not the only person to claim that Pell had been diligently working to secure a Vatican post.

According to Merchants in the Temple, a book by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi – one of Chaouqui’s co-accused in the Vatileaks 2.0 trial – Pell had “arrived quietly in the Holy See in the [northern] spring of 2013 with the intention of playing an important role on Francis’ team”.

“He guessed correctly the new climate that the Pope wanted to bring into the Curia and he wanted to play a central role in the project of restructuring the Vatican.

“Pell’s detractors claimed that the cardinal had a single objective in those weeks: to obtain for himself a post in the Apostolic Palace and leave Sydney behind, thereby fleeing the aggressive investigation being conducted by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.”

Chaouqui says she cannot know the cardinal’s motive for seeking a permanent job at the Vatican.

But she is writing a book about one night, in February 2014, when, she says, Pell convened a meeting at Domus Australia, the Sydney Diocese centre of power in Rome, and Pell’s home away from home.

There, Chaouqui claims, Pell led Dr Joseph Zahra, president of COSEA, Balda and his aide, Nicola Maio, in creating the document that Pell then took to the Pope as the blueprint for the Secretariat of the Economy.

She claims that, essentially, they wrote the Pope’s Apostolic letter Dispensator et Prudens.

Extraordinarily, this took place without the involvement or knowledge of the Vatican secretary of state, Pietro Parolin, theoretically the Pope’s No. 2.

“I compare it to a coup d’etat what happened that night,” Chaouqui says.

“Cardinal Pell forced the creation of the Secretariat for the Economy.”

This chimes with an anecdote from Nuzzi’s book. At the secret meeting with cardinals where the Pope announced the creation of the secretariat, to the surprise of Parolin, at one point Pell was called on to explain how it worked. One cardinal joked: “Of course … Pell knows everything.”

Everyone in the meeting laughed.

Fairfax Media put a series of questions regarding Chaouqui and Nuzzi’s claims to Pell’s representatives on Thursday.

His spokesperson said “the cardinal’s strong record of tackling incompetence, corruption and cover-up in church life in Australia is precisely the reason he was asked to come to Rome to implement the Holy Father’s reforms”.

Others who have written on the topic picked the cardinal as the obvious choice to lead the economic secretariat, given his history on pushing for reform, and his independent status as a Vatican outsider.

In June 2014 Chaouqui was still a believer – telling the Boston Globe she “supports completely” Pell.

But then began Vatileaks 2.0 – in early 2015, journalists got hold of Pell’s expense claims: half a million euros before the secretariat was even established, details such as a €4600 kitchen unit, Pell’s business-class flights and expensive vestments.

Two books came out, with further embarrassing confidential details of the Vatican finances – clearly sourced from COSEA’s investigations.

Chaouqui denies being the source of the leak – and names who she thinks is responsible. But she says the details on Pell’s office, along with her reflections of the way the secretariat was created, soured her on Pell as the standard-bearer for reform in the Vatican.

And then – prompted by rumours and briefings spread by the cardinal’s political enemies – the Vatican started to become aware of the cardinal’s role, and the allegations he would face, in Australia’s royal commission.

“It’s horrible to see the cardinal that is the head of economic reform to talk about the paedophilia,” says Chaouqui, who followed the commission hearings intently. “For me it’s very incredible … the same person that represents reform is the same person that seeks to defend [himself] from accusations of having covered up a paedophile.”

She says the cardinal is losing the authority required to achieve reform. “I feared for the reform, I feared that with this situation Pell would no longer have the strength or authority to manage a new structure like the Secretariat for the Economy,” she says.

Chaouqui wonders if her son will be born while, or shortly before she is jailed over the exposure of “truths” in the Vatican. She says the mentality of cover-ups and silence that she saw in the evidence to the commission is the same as she is being put through.

“It’s crazy. I am being prosecuted as a traitor because I had the courage to denounce what is rotten in the Vatican, while Pell is safe and sound protected by its walls.”

Chaouqui says she once told Pope Francis that when one of the people that works in the economic affairs side of the Vatican chooses to reach out and touch a refugee, or someone suffering in a poor country, victims of war or abuse or oppression, someone in true need of compassion and care, only then “we win”.

“If it’s not possible we don’t win. This is the reform for me. The reform is the people, it’s not the money.

“I think the challenge is to reform the people, not the church.”

When, on Thursday, Pell chose to meet the victims of abuse, to reach out and hear their stories: above all the budgets and audits he has imposed on the church, that may have been his greatest act of reform.

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