Trial of pope's butler to shine light on Vatican intrigue

Sat, Sep 29, 2012, 01:00

Pope Benedict XVI is both victim and final arbiter in the trial of Paolo Gabriele, writes PADDY AGNEWin Rome

THE EYES of the world will be on the Holy See this morning when Paolo Gabriele, butler to Pope Benedict XVI, goes on trial in the Vatican, charged with “aggravated theft”.

Over the next few weeks, the key to one of the most sensational of the many recent scandals to plague the Catholic Church may – or indeed may not – emerge.

Gabriele, of course, made worldwide headlines last May when the Vatican gendarmerie arrested him after finding an “enormous” quantity of documents stolen from the pope’s apartment in his Vatican City home.

Many of these documents had appeared in the book, His Holiness: the Secret Papers of Benedict XVI by Gianluigi Nuzzi, also published last May.

This enthralling work offers a hardly flattering portrayal of internecine rivalry, occasional corruption and much politicking in the Holy See, all based on original, highly confidential documents that had crossed the desk of either the pope or of his trusted private secretary, Msgr Georg Ganswein.

Under questioning from Vatican City prosecutors, Gabriele subsequently admitted he had passed the documents to Nuzzi.

Given that Gabriele has confessed to his crime and asked for the pope’s forgiveness, one might expect this unprecedented court case to concentrate not on the “who” (Gabriele”) or the “what” (documents from the pope’s desk) but rather on the most intriguing aspect of this mystery, namely the “why”.

Much of the thrust of Nuzzi’s book would suggest that the pope’s trusted secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, exercises undue power and influence in Holy See affairs.

This portrayal of the cardinal has led many to speculate that the “Vatileaks” crisis of earlier this year, which saw a series of confidential Holy See documents leaked not just to Nuzzi but also to several Italian news sources, was part of a campaign to discredit Bertone.

In other words, given that the pope is now 85 years old, different factions in the curia are lining up for pre-conclave battle.

Such speculation is fascinating but it may well be that this trial will merely concentrate on establishing Gabriele’s guilt.

In a briefing for reporters this week, Vatican appeals court prosecutor Giovanni Giacobbe explained that, under Vatican City state law, a confession in itself is insufficient to ensure conviction and must be supported by corroborating evidence.

There will also be the question of Gabriele’s mental state, as he told prosecutors he had been “infiltrated” by the Holy Spirit, urging him to take action.

The prosecutor also pointed out that Vatican City judicial proceedings are based on an 1889 approved Italian penal code that has nothing to do with canon law. In order to question witnesses – and at this point we do not know who will be called – both prosecution and defence must ask their questions through the presiding judge.

A press pool of eight reporters will cover the proceedings. The reporters will not be allowed to bring cameras, phones or any other electronic equipment into the small courtroom.

Gabriele is not the only defendant in the dock this morning: Vatican computer technician Claudio Sciarpelletti has been charged with complicity in the crime.

Sciarpelletti’s role in the theft appears to have been that of messenger, in that he conveyed various documents (on behalf of whom?) to Gabriele.

Clearly, a brief trial would be in the best interests of the Holy See. Not only is the trial likely to result in much negative publicity for the Vatican, in addition it has come just before a synod on “new evangelisation” that is due to open on October 7th.

One of the many anomalies of this trial is that the victim, the pope, is also the supreme arbiter in that he can at any time simply pardon both Gabriele and Sciarpelletti.

It might well have suited the Holy See to have the pope issue that pardon last month and thus stop the judicial show.

Senior Vatican sources ruefully concede that, while such a pre-emptive pardon might seem tempting, it would only have led to media accusations of cover-up.

Thus Vatican City state justice must take its course.

If and when Gabriele and Sciarpelletti are found guilty, they could face prison sentences of four years and one year respectively.

If after two levels of appeal they are still found guilty, they will have to serve their prison terms in Italy, given that the Vatican has no prison accommodation.

Many believe, however, that if they are found guilty the pope will intervene at that point and issue a pontifical pardon.