Francesca Chaouqui, the woman at the center of the 2015 Vatileaks scandal, has claimed that Cardinal Becciu paid hundreds of thousands of euros to a UK private intelligence firm to “monitor and intervene” with the press for him, and not to negotiate the release of a captured religious sister, as he has claimed.
In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Verita, published March 11, Chaouqui said that the Inkerman Group contacted her after being contracted by Cardinal Becciu through Cecelia Marogna, the self-described intelligence and security expert who worked for the cardinal.
She told the paper that while the UK based intelligence firm was “officially” contracted to arrange the release of kidnapped religious, “in reality” the group was tasked with media monitoring and PR work on the cardinal’s behalf.
“An emissary from Inkerman contacted me after having had an initial conversation with Marogna, to understand some things,” Chaouqui claimed in the interview, saying that the group wanted to know “if it were normal to receive an assignment from the Holy See for intelligence activities.”
Chaouqui said that Inkerman employees were “perplexed” by the approach by Marogna, supposedly on behalf of the Vatican, because in previous jobs “they had always interfaced with the Secretariat of State and the commander of the [Vatican City] Gendarmerie for security.”
Chaouqui said she told the Inkerman contact that it was not normal for Vatican officials to subcontract intelligence work to independent agencies through third-party intermediaries.
“In fact I was surprised,” she told Verita, “and the thing intrigued me to such an extent that I started asking questions. And so I came to know that the activity requested had to officially concern the liberation of some nuns, but that in reality Inkerman was asked to carry out monitoring to intervene on some Italian press organs, and [others] in foreign countries, that did not have an editorial line that Becciu liked.”
Both Becciu and Margona are facing charges of embezzlement over the hundreds of thousands of euros Becciu ordered officials to pay Marogna for her work via her Slovenian registered company. The trial is the result of a two-year investigation by prosecutors into the financial affairs of the Secretariat of State.
The cardinal’s relationship with Marogna and the work she allegedly carried out for him have been central to several of the allegations facing Becciu in the current Vatican trial. Previous reporting has established that Becciu continued to order the secret transfer of Church funds to Marogna, even after he left his office as sostituto at the Secretariat of State.
Becciu served as sostituto at the Secretariat of State from 2012 to 2018, when he was made a cardinal and promoted to prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. He was sacked by Pope Francis in September, 2020.
Marogna claims she worked for the Secretariat of State on sensitive diplomatic cases, like those of kidnapped clergy and religious, while also boasting of work as a kind of personal spy for Becciu, gathering dossiers of information on the private moral failings of other senior Church officials.
Becciu has said that the payments to Marogna were to help secure the release of Sr. Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, a Colombian religious sister abducted in 2017 by jihadist militants in Mali, and freed last year. The operation, according to the cardinal, had a budget of up to a million euros to be paid through Marogna to the Inkerman Group, which provides “protection,” “risk analysis,” and “intelligence services” to private clients.
But financial records show that the hundreds of thousands of euros Marogna was paid by Becciu were spent on designer-label fashion items, luxury goods, and high-end resort hotels around the world. Italian intelligence officials have also publicly distanced themselves from Marogna’s claims to have been involved in the Mail case, and Pope Francis has himself recently intervened to discredit Becciu’s account of events.
Although Becciu has previously said that Pope Francis had approved “every step of the operation” with Marogna and insisted on total secrecy, correspondence between the cardinal and Pope Francis, released to the court last week by the pope, shows that the pope did not authorize the plan, and rejected Becciu’s repeated demands that Francis shield him from legal scrutiny over the matter.
In letters between Francis and Becciu dated July, 2021, the pope refuted Becciu’s attempts to conflate Vatican efforts to secure the religious sister’s release with the cardinal’s dealings with Margona, saying that one “concerns institutional activities carried out by competent people of undoubted professionalism in the context of their respective roles,” and the other “is characterized by extemporaneous and incautious assignments of financial resources diverted from the typical purposes and intended, according to the [prosecutors’ indictment], to satisfy personal voluptuous inclinations.”
Francis did not say whose “personal voluptuous inclinations” were satisfied by Becciu’s payments to Margona.
In the current Vatican trial, the court has previously heard from a senior officer of the Vatican corps of gendarmes, who testified that when they informed Becciu in 2020 that Interpol had flagged a series of payments totaling some 575,000 euros to Marogna’s Slovenian-registered company, the cardinal offered to personally reimburse the Vatican out of his own pocket, and asked Vatican law enforcement to keep the matter confidential because it would cause “serious harm” to the cardinal and his family.
Chaouqui’s involvement in the current trial has proven a complicating factor for both prosecutors and defense lawyers.
In December 2022, the court was told that she had helped a key prosecution witness prepare his initial statements to Vatican prosecutors, but had done so through a mutual friend and not disclosed her identity.
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Chaouqui, a PR consultant, was appointed by Pope Francis to serve on a special commission to recommend financial reforms during the first days of his pontificate in 2013. She was subsequently convicted by a Vatican court in 2016 of leaking confidential information to journalists and handed a 10 month suspended prison sentence.
Dubbed “La bomba sexy” and “the popess” by Italian tabloids, Chaouqui has had a long and public personal feud with Becciu, whom she blames for her trial and conviction.
And according to leaked text messages published in 2020, she texted the cardinal in 2017 demanding his help rehabilitating her reputation and warning him about things “that could get you in serious trouble I’m keeping to myself.”
She’s also said to have presented herself to prosecutors in 2020, shortly after Becciu was sacked by Pope Francis, with an offer to cooperate with any investigation into him.
Becciu’s legal team contend that the emergence of Chaouqui’s involvement with key witnesses against the cardinal show the charges against him are an effort to frame him, based on malicious and false accusations from known antagonists.
Responding to public criticism of her involvement, Chaouqui said Saturday that “You can say what you want about me,” but boasted she was still in a position to know how things worked in the Vatican.
“They keep calling me ‘popess’: there must be a reason, right?” Chaouqui said. “I do a job that allows me to know facts that are not within everyone's reach, there is nothing illegal in collecting information and getting to know men, women and balances within an organization, a company, or a state.”
The Vatican trial remains ongoing, but Chaouqui is not currently scheduled to be called again as a witness.