OPINION: Vatican can’t seem to get out of the secrets business

Leaking is essential to journalism. It is the ethical problem at the heart of the trade - since much leaking depends on the leaker breaking a promise not to leak. The conundrum is 'solved' by appealing to the higher cause of holding power to account.

That rationale can vary from having the force of exposing official lies or corporate fraud to the grubbiness of publishing details, usually sexual, of the private life of well-known people. But leaking is especially essential in the coverage of the intelligence services, and of the way in which security in the face of militant jihadism is administered. It's necessary to get beyond bland statements and partial briefings, and get some purchase on the scope and methods of institutions now, in every state, much more powerful and much larger than they had been since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The George W Bush administrations were as angered as any before them by the leaking which surrounded their actions, especially in the second half of the 2000s. But, as reporters learned to their delight, the wars within it, in key departments like Justice and State as well as in the security services, meant that leakers had a large interest in getting their objections out, and in weakening opponents whom they thought wrong, or dangerous.

Under President Barack Obama, however, whose administration is more disciplined and which has been directed to go hard on leakers, the pickings - say reporters - are thinner, the penalties harsher. Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer who leaked material on Iran to New York Times reporter James Risen for his 2006 book State of War; John Kiriakou, also once with the CIA, who disclosed information about a brother officer to journalists; and Stephen Kim, a former State department expert, who gave details of contacts between the United States and North Korea to a Fox News reporter, have all served or are serving jail sentences for their acts.

The administration has not, however, prosecuted the journalists who received and used the leaks, tempted as the people in the White House and at Justice seem to have been. Officials will try to stop publication by appealing to the damage it will cause, especially to intelligence gathering - and sometimes editors will agree to at least delay. Once the story is out, however, vengeance is (relatively) swift for the leakers, while the leakee is left alone, albeit roundly cursed.

This isn't the way the Holy See, under the Peoples' Pope Francis, operates. And while the Vatican is not the CIA, it's central to the lives of many millions, and has a large effect on the world: and thus the way in which it conducts its business should be known. Yet two journalists, Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, who tried to shine some light on that are on trial for disclosing confidential Vatican documents in recent books. Together with the journalists, three others who helped them - a Spanish priest Monsignor Angelo Balda, his secretary Nicola Maio and a public relations consultant Francesca Chaouqui, members of a commission tasked with developing financial reforms, are also indicted.

The journalists' books are critical. Caroline Wyatt, the BBC's religious affairs reporter, writes "In Avarice, Emiliano Fittipaldi says 'crazy' sums were spent on business class flights and furniture. Gianluigi Nuzzi's Merchants in the Temple describes a pattern of financial mismanagement and greed at the heart of the Vatican."

Fittipaldi wrote, in an article in the Rome daily La Repubblica, (in Italian) that he called his book Avarice because it was "one of the seven deadly sins which sets man apart from God" - and he wanted to dramatise the problem. "I was perfectly well aware," he writes, "that to reveal that the apartments of Cardinal Bertone (former Vatican State Secretary), renovated with funds from the Foundation of the Baby Jesus meant for the care of sick children, would get on the nerves of those who knew about the matter for years, and kept it hidden".

The apartment, when renovated, will allegedly be 6,500 square feet, with space for three nuns who have attended him to live there. Bertone, who was replaced by Francis, denies the apartment is so large, and blames 'vipers and spies' for disclosing the details about him.

This isn't a Stalinist show trial. The journalists, who live outside of the Vatican City state, attend voluntarily. Though the accused could theoretically get up to eight years under Vatican law, few expect prison sentences, if pronounced, to be carried through. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and columnist for the National Catholic Reporter in the United States, wrote that the previous pope, Benedict XVI, pardoned his butler who stole some documents from him, and that "Pope Francis will undoubtedly do the same if these people are convicted."

Maybe. But the law which specifies up to eight years imprisonment was introduced, on his own initiative, by Francis in 2013 - a sign of his exasperation with leaks about arguments with senior cardinals, and disclosures on child abuse. The Vatican's penal code, based on early 20th century Italian law, has been updated - and targeted on those who embarrass the hierarchy.

Reese wrote that "Vatican City is a state that can enact and prosecute laws, but it is also the central office of the Catholic Church. In this case, it should act like a church not a state." In fact, it is acting as both a state - headed by a figure chosen by a small elite through divine intervention - and a church. Religions have always had a punitive side to keep the faithful in line. The Inquisition and witch-hunting have long gone from Christianity, but the instinct to punish those who defy the church - in matters large and small - remains.

It's too late for that. Italy, the surrounding state, has imperfect news media, but a strengthening belief in the need that they be as free as their most spirited journalists can make them.

Francis is foolish to sully himself by prosecuting a media that has lionised him as a liberal reformer. But he's also foolish in a deeper sense - for failing to recognise that it's a mistake to suppress rather than to admit, to condemn the messenger and reward the perpetrator. When details of the actions of people and institutions usually end up swimming in the vast sea of the 'Net, that folly is compounded. Even the Vatican cannot be a sanctuary for scandal.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including 'What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics' (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.