Verdict likely in trial of pope's butler today

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

Just a week after it started the fast-paced theft trial is expected to end, PADDY AGNEWreports from Rome

AT THE end of an unprecedented week in the affairs of the Holy See, there seems little doubt but that the wheels of Vatican justice rattle along at Concorde-style supersonic speed.

At the end of this week, too, that is just about the only certain conclusion to be drawn from the trial of Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict XVI’s butler who stands accused of the theft of more than a thousand highly confidential documents from the pontifical apartment.

In all likelihood, Gabriele will today be given a three- to four-year prison sentence for the theft. After that, he may well be pardoned by the pope who, after all, is in the unique position of being both the main victim and the “supreme arbiter” in this trial.

As was always predictable, it may well be that when the trial ends we are none the wiser about some of the key questions prompted by this bizarre affair. Gabriele has long ago confessed his guilt, saying that he stole documents and subsequently leaked them to Gianluigi Nuzzi, author of His Holiness, The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, in order to expose “evil and corruption” in the church.

The burning question at heart of this remarkable case, however, has always been something else. Did Gabriele act on his own or at the instigation of others, perhaps senior church figures of the red hat variety? In that regard, Gabriele’s own evidence last Tuesday prompted more questions than answers.

Sounding self-controlled, confident and just a tad well rehearsed (for example, on a number of occasions he repeated, word for word, phrases from his original testimony to prosecutors), Gabriele spoke of an “environmental context” of malaise. Did this mean that there were other “ravens” (collaborators) involved, asked prosecutor, Nicola Picardi? “No, I confirm in the most absolute terms that there were no other collaborators.”

However, the prosecutor also pointed out to Gabriele that in his original evidence, he had named at least four people as “contacts”, namely cardinals Paolo Sardi and Angelo Comastri, Bishop of Carpi Francesco Cavina, and Ingrid Stampa, the pope’s longtime assistant.

In his response, Gabriele was emphatic, admitting that he knew these people but stressing that they had nothing to do with his theft. Calling Cardinal Sardi “a sort of spiritual father”, he suggested that those names had come up in his original testimony only in the context of trying to sum up “a much wider debate”.

He also repeated that the theft had been “an irrational thing” and that it was difficult to understand how he had “degenerated in that way”.

In some senses, it is possible to believe that Gabriele lost the run of himself. In his evidence on Tuesday, he said that although his apartment in Vatican City is only a four-minute walk from the Pontifical Palace, he often used his car to go to and from work. Otherwise, he would find himself being stopped by lots of people, all of whom knew that he worked in the papal apartment and accordingly wanted to ask him for various favours.

Is it possible that, living side by side with Pope Benedict, serving him at table, helping him with his clothes, catering for his daily needs, that the butler began to feel he was called for greater things, that he should play a more active role in the life of the Holy See? It was striking that Gabriele on Tuesday called himself the “lay person closest to the Holy Father” during that part of his evidence where he made arguably his most sensational comments. Namely, that the pope is not as well informed as he should be and that he had come to the conclusion that “it is easy to manipulate a person who has such powers of decision in his hands”.

So then, Gabriele is just a well-intentioned, misplaced but isolated whistleblower? Hardly. The extent to which presiding judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre became active, insisting on Tuesday that any discussion of motivation, “ravens” or collaborators was outside the court’s brief might suggest otherwise.

Many Vatican observers, perhaps even some Vatican gendarmes, still feel that Gabriele’s theft was the expression of a pre-conclave power struggle in the Holy See.

However, as for precisely who egged on the butler, that is one question this trial seems unlikely to answer.