Pope Benedict XVI’s personal butler will be cross-examined by a Vatican court on Tuesday in a closely-watched trial in which he is accused of stealing highly sensitive documents, some of them from the desk of the pope himself.
The trial opened on Saturday in a wood-paneled courtroom in a Vatican tribunal within the walls of the tiny city-state. The case inevitably has garnered headlines given that it revolves around the great mystery cliche: "Did the butler do it?" Or rather, "was it only the butler who did it?"
The documents at the heart of the case have lifted the lid on corruption at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church, which is still battered by revelations of clerical coverups of child sexual abuse. With this case, the Vatican is trying to showcase greater transparency, allowing a pool of journalists to cover each meeting. Experts, however, say that the latest saga does not help the Vatican's already damaged image.
“It is certainly embarrassing for the Vatican, but I’m not sure it will resonate that much among ordinary Catholics around the world,” says Alessandro Speciale, Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service. “The church was already badly tarnished by the pedophile sex abuse scandals. That was much more serious.”
Paolo Gabriele, the once-trusted valet who used to dress the 85-year-old German pontiff and travel with him in his Popemobile, is charged under Vatican law with the “aggravated theft” of confidential papers from the pope’s private apartments and the Vatican secretariat of state.
Gold nugget, copy of the Aeneid
He is also accused of stealing an eclectic trio of gifts intended for the 85-year-old Pope Benedict: a gold nugget, a check from a benefactor to the pope for €100,000, and a 16th- century copy of "The Aeneid," the epic poem by Virgil.
All the items were allegedly found squirreled away in the Vatican apartment he shares with his family, not far from the pope’s apartments.
Mr. Gabriele, who is married with three children, is accused of passing the documents onto an Italian investigative journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi, who in May published them in an explosive book, “His Holiness – The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI.”
The papers, memos, and letters lifted the lid on allegations of corruption in the awarding of public works contracts, obstructing the reform of the Vatican bank, and a mud-slinging campaign involving false accusations of homosexual affairs.
Several of the documents cast a bad light on Tarcisio Bertone, who, as secretary of state, is the pope’s right-hand man and effectively the Vatican prime minister. Documents appear to show that Cardinal Bertone did his utmost to block efforts to clean up alleged corruption and cronyism within the city-state.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a senior member of the Vatican administration, discovered that it was wasting millions of euros in overpaying for goods and services, for instance.
But Bertone allegedly had him removed from his post three years before his term was up and sent to faraway Washington as the pope’s nuncio, or ambassador.
The list of witnesses to be called at Gabriele’s trial, announced at the hearing on Saturday, shows how the scandal has reached deep into the inner sanctums of the Holy See. They include Georg Ganswein, the pope’s personal secretary; Domenico Giani, the head of the Vatican Gendarmerie, the city-state’s 130-strong police force; and William Kloter, the deputy commandant of the Swiss Guard, the pope’s personal bodyguard.
The trial and its repercussions present another difficulty for the pope, who has spent much of his papacy trying to address and contain outrage over hundreds of cases in which priests sexually molested children in their charge. The sex abuse scandal has affected countries around the world, including the United States, Australia, Ireland, and Germany.
While the butler’s trial has attracted massive media coverage in Italy, the level of scrutiny does not necessarily match the interest of ordinary Catholics.
“I’m not particularly interested in the trial, and it hasn’t made much of an impression on me,” says Claudio Bondi, an accountant enjoying a walk in a park near the Vatican with his two children. “It seems like an internal affair for the Vatican and not something that affects ordinary people very much.”
Gabriele faces up to four years in prison if found guilty of stealing the documents.
At Saturday’s hearing he was not required to enter a plea, but he can expect to face tough questioning from Vatican prosecutors when the trial resumes on Tuesday.
During a hearing that lasted just over two hours, the panel of three judges agreed to a request from lawyers to split Gabriele’s trial from that of Claudio Sciarpelletti – a Vatican computer technician who is accused of abetting the theft and leaking the confidential documents.
Just the two?
The key issue is whether the two men acted on their own, as loose cannons, or whether they were pawns who were fed the documents by much more senior figures in the church.
In a significant development that may mean the true extent of the conspiracy will never emerge, the three judges in the trial ruled that evidence gathered in secret by a specially commissioned panel of cardinals will not be admitted in court.
The panel, appointed personally by the pope and led by the 82-year-old Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz Casado, a prominent member of the Opus Dei movement, delivered their findings to the pope over the summer.
But the court rejected a defense request for their investigation to be aired in the hearing.
The trial could have been held behind closed doors, and the fact that it is open to the press – albeit on a restricted pool basis – is evidence that the church wants to deal with the affair openly, Vatican figures said.
“The trial will be fair and respectful of the rights both of the defence and the prosecution,” Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, a Vatican jurist and trusted confidant of the pope, told La Repubblica newspaper on Sunday.
He said the evidence gathered by prosecutors suggested that Gabriele had acted on his own initiative, with some help from Mr. Sciarpelletti, the IT expert.
But among Vatican watchers the suspicion remains that it was not only the butler who did it; and he himself claimed, in an interview broadcast on Italian television before he was identified and arrested in May, that "around 20" sympathizers within the Vatican helped him steal and leak the documents. The impression that the Holy See wants to draw a line under the whole embarrassing affair as quickly as possible was reinforced when the presiding judge, Giuseppe Dalla Torre, said that the entire case could be wrapped up within a week.