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You're reading: Pope’s ex-butler goes on trial for leaked papers

VATICAN CITY — There was a time when a Vatican trial could end with a heretic being burned at the stake. Paolo Gabriele doesn't risk nearly as a dire fate, but he and the Holy See face a very public airing over the gravest security breach in the Vatican's recent history following the theft and leaking of the pope's personal papers.

Gabriele, the pope’s once-trusted
butler, goes on trial Saturday, accused of stealing the pope’s documents
and passing them off to a journalist — a sensational, Hollywood-like
scandal that exposed power struggles, intrigue and allegations of
corruption in the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

Gabriele
is charged with aggravated theft and faces six years in prison if
convicted by the three-judge Vatican tribunal. He has already confessed
and asked to be pardoned — something most Vatican watchers say is a
given if he is convicted — making the trial almost a formality were it
not for the novelty that it is happening at all.

To be sure,
trials are nothing new at the Vatican: In 2011 alone, 640 civil cases
and 226 penal cases were processed by the Vatican’s judiciary, 99
percent of which involved some of the 18 million tourists who pass
through the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica each year. And
that’s not counting the marriage annulments and other church law matters
that come before the Vatican’s ecclesial courts.

Yet this most
high-profile case will cast an unusually bright spotlight on the
Vatican’s legal system, which is based on the 19th century Italian
criminal code, and the rather unique situation in which the pope is both
the victim and supreme judge in this case.

The Vatican is an
elective absolute monarchy: The pope has full executive, legislative and
judicial authority in the Vatican city state. He delegates that power
through executive appointments, legislative commissions and tribunals,
but by law he can intervene at any point in a judicial proceeding.

The
Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, has said he believes the
trial will run its course without papal interference. But he has
acknowledged the likelihood of a papal pardon. After all, Pope John Paul
II forgave the Turkish gunman who shot him in 1981.

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. Many of those documents appeared in the book “His Holiness:
Pope Benedict XVI’s secret papers,” by Gianluigi Nuzzi, an Italian
journalist whose earlier book on the Vatican bank caused a sensation.

According
to Vatican prosecutors, Gabriele confessed to passing the documents off
to Nuzzi, hoping to expose what he considered the “evil and corruption”
in the church. Prosecutors described Gabriele as a devoutly misguided
would-be whistle-blower who believed the Holy Spirit had inspired him to
protect and inform the pope about the problems around him.

“I was sure that a shock, even a media
one, would have been healthy to bring the Church back on the right
track,” prosecutors quoted Gabriele as saying during a June
interrogation.

Gabriele is being tried along with a co-defendant,
Claudio Sciarpelletti, a computer expert in the Secretariat of State who
is charged with aiding and abetting Gabriele.

While the Vatican
legal system will be on display during the trial, so too will be the
peculiarities of the Vatican city state itself, the world’s smallest
sovereign state. Gabriele is both a Vatican citizen and resident of a
Vatican City apartment (one of 595 citizens of whom 247 are residents).
So the pope is not only Gabriele’s former boss, he is also his landlord,
his spiritual head as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and his
head of state, not to mention the authority who appointed the prosecutor
and the three lay judges who will hear Gabriele’s case.

When it
was first published in May, “His Holiness” became the most-talked about
book in Italy and the Vatican, 273 pages of secrets about one of the
most secretive institutions in the world. It included letters from a
Vatican official detailing corruption in the awarding of Vatican
contracts, finger-pointing about who was to blame for leaking
accusations about homosexual liaisons, and the like.

None of the
documents threatened the papacy. Most were of interest only to Italians,
as they concerned relations between Italy and the Vatican and a few
local scandals and personalities. But their very existence and the fact
that they were taken from the pope’s own desk provoked an unprecedented
reaction from the Vatican, with the pope naming a commission of
cardinals to investigate alongside the Vatican magistrates.

Clerics
have since lamented how the episode shattered the trust and discretion
that typically surrounds day-to-day life in the Vatican, with bishops
now questioning whether to send confidential information to the pope for
fear it may end up on the front page of a newspaper.

Journalist Nuzzi, for his part, remains calm amid the storm despite his role as the other key protagonist in the case.

“The
only thing I can say is that I strongly hope that the trial will unveil
the motives and convictions that compelled Paolo Gabriele to bring to
light documents and events described in the book,” he told The
Associated Press this week.

Gabriele, a 46-year-old father of
three, is being represented by attorney Cristiana Arru after his
childhood friend, Carlo Fusco, quit as his lead attorney last month over
differences in defense strategy.

The Vatican had said the trial
would be open to the public, though access is limited and no cameras or
audio is allowed. Eight journalists will attend each session and brief
the Vatican press corps afterward.

There is no indication how long
the trial will last, how many witnesses will be called or what
Gabriele’s defense will be given that he has, according to prosecutors,
confessed to taking the documents. One tantalizing potential witness is
the pope’s personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, one of the few
named witnesses in the indictment who first confronted Gabriele.

Prosecutors
did order a psychiatric evaluation and determined that Gabriele was
conscious of his actions, although they quoted the psychiatrists as
saying he was unsuited for his job, was easily manipulated and suffered
from “a grave psychological unease characterized by restlessness,
tension, anger and frustrations.”

Despite the peculiarities of the
Vatican’s legal system and the pope’s absolute authority over all
things legislative, executive and judicial, at least one outside
authority has deemed it credible and fair: A federal judge in New York
last year dismissed a lawsuit against the Vatican concerning rights to
reproduce images from the Vatican library, ruling that the plaintiffs
failed to show they couldn’t get a fair hearing in the Vatican courts.

There
has been no such vote of confidence for the Vatican’s onetime
Congregation for the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition, the
commission created in 1542 that functioned as a tribunal to root out
heresy, punish crimes against the faith and name Inquisitors for the
church.

One of its more famous victims was Giordano Bruno, burned in Rome in 1600 after being tried for heresy.

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