Facebook Twitter

Did the butler do it? A Q&A on the Vatican trial

SHARE Did the butler do it? A Q&A on the Vatican trial
FILE - In this file photo taken Wednesday, May 2, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI arrives in St. Peter's square at the Vatican for a general audience as his then-butler Paolo Gabriele, bottom, and his personal secretary Georg Gaenswein sit in the car with him. Po

FILE - In this file photo taken Wednesday, May 2, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI arrives in St. Peter’s square at the Vatican for a general audience as his then-butler Paolo Gabriele, bottom, and his personal secretary Georg Gaenswein sit in the car with him. Pope Benedict XVI’s ex-butler Paolo Gabriele and another Vatican lay employee, Claudio Sciarpelletti, are scheduled to go on trial Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, in the embarrassing theft of papal documents that exposed alleged corruption at the Holy See’s highest levels. Gabriele was arrested May 24 after Vatican police found what prosecutors called an “enormous’’ stash of documents from the pope’s desk in his Vatican City apartment.

Alessandra Tarantino, File, Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has never seen anything like it.

Pope Benedict XVI's trusted butler, who dressed the pontiff each morning, attended his daily Mass and helped serve him his meals, stands accused of stealing the pope's private correspondence and giving it to a journalist who wrote a blockbuster book about the secrets of one of the most secretive institutions in the world.

Paolo Gabriele, a 46-year-old father of three, goes on trial Saturday in the most sensational crime committed on Vatican territory since the 1998 double murder of the Swiss Guard commander and his wife. That case never came to trial because the suspect killed himself.

Gabriele, who was replaced after the scandal broke in May, is scheduled to face the three-judge Vatican tribunal, charged with aggravated theft and facing up to four years in prison if convicted. He has already confessed and asked to be pardoned by the pope — something most Vatican watchers say is a given if he is convicted.


According to prosecutors, Gabriele had an "enormous" stash of papal documents at his Vatican City apartment. After his May 24 arrest, he admitted he photocopied documents and gave them to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, whose "His Holiness: The secret papers of Pope Benedict XVI" was published in May. The most damaging letter reproduced in the book was written by the former No. 2 Vatican administrator to the pope, in which he begged not to be transferred as punishment for exposing alleged corruption. The prelate, Monsignor Carlo Maria Vigano, is now the Vatican's U.S. ambassador.


Nuzzi has said his source, code-named "Maria" in the book, wanted to shed light on the secrets of the church that were damaging it. Taken as a whole, the documents seemed aimed at discrediting Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state and Benedict's longtime trusted deputy. Bertone, 77, a canon lawyer and soccer enthusiast, has frequently been criticized for perceived shortcomings in running the Vatican.


Prosecutors quoted Gabriele as saying he knew taking the documents was wrong, but that he felt the Holy Spirit was inspiring him to shed light on the problems he saw around him. "Seeing evil and corruption everywhere in the church ... I was sure that a shock, even a media one, would have been healthy to bring the Church back on the right track," Gabriele was quoted by prosecutors as saying during a June 5 interrogation. They quoted him as saying he never intended to hurt the church or Benedict.


In the U.S. legal system, a case such as this might result in a plea bargain. But the Vatican legal system doesn't provide for plea bargains, according to Giovanni Giacobbe, the prosecutor in the Vatican appeals court. He noted that confessions can be coerced or given up to protect someone else. Gabriele's confession must be corroborated by other evidence uncovered during the investigation in order for him to be convicted, he said. A co-defendant, Vatican computer expert Claudio Sciarpelletti, is charged with aiding and abetting Gabriele.


The hearing opens Saturday at 9:30 a.m. No oaths are taken — as the Vatican legal system, like the Italian one on which it is based, assumes a suspect may lie for self-protection. The hearing is declared open and one of the judges reads the charges aloud against Gabriele. He doesn't enter a plea. The defense can make objections to the indictment. Both sides may enter their witness lists. Eventually, the presiding judge — Giuseppe Dalla Torre, president of the Vatican City State tribunal — questions Gabriele. Unlike the U.S. system, prosecutors don't question suspects directly and there is no cross-examination; the judge conducts the interrogations on behalf of both sides. Eventually, after all witnesses are heard, objections dealt with and evidence examined, the judges convene in their chambers and issue a ruling.


There has never been a trial like this before in the Vatican tribunal, so there's no way to know how long it will take. Much depends on what, if any, objections are raised and how many witnesses are called. Hearings are usually only held on Saturdays, since the judges on the Vatican tribunal hold full-time jobs elsewhere.


The trial takes place in the small, austere courtroom inside a four-story, peach-colored palazzo inside Vatican City. A plaque near the entrance reads "Judicial Offices" and a carved stone papal seal frames the doorway. A metal detector greets visitors. The courtroom features rich wood paneling and gilded molding on the ceiling, and a small crucifix is centered behind the chairs of the three lay judges. Gabriele, assuming he attends, can sit at one of the tables facing the judges with his lawyer. The prosecutor has his own place at the other table. There is a small section for the public.


On paper, Vatican court proceedings are open to the public. But Giacobbe said those wishing to attend must petition the court, which then decides whether to grant permission. Gabriele, who was granted house arrest in July after spending nearly two months in a Vatican police unit, doesn't have to attend. For the media, eight journalists attend each session and report back to the Vatican press corps. No television, still cameras or audio recording is allowed and court transcripts aren't public.


The Vatican took the betrayal very seriously: Benedict appointed a commission of three cardinals to investigate alongside Vatican magistrates; they delivered their confidential report to the pope over the summer. Benedict addressed the scandal for the first time a week after Gabriele was arrested, saying "The events of recent days about the Curia and my collaborators have brought sadness in my heart." But in a nod to his confidence in Bertone, he added: "I want to renew my trust in and encouragement of my closest collaborators and all those who every day, with loyalty and a spirit of sacrifice and in silence, help me fulfill my ministry."

Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield