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Pope Benedict's butler to stand trial on theft charges

Paolo Gabriele will be tried by a Vatican tribunal for allegedly stealing Pope Benedict XVI's confidential papers and passing them to an Italian journalist.

August 14, 2012|By Sarah Delaney, Los Angeles Times
  • Pope Benedict XVI arrives at St. Peter's Square in May with his personal secretary, Msgr. Georg Gaenswein, top left. With them is the pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, who is accused of stealing confidential papal papers.
Pope Benedict XVI arrives at St. Peter's Square in May with his personal… (Alessandra Tarantino,…)

VATICAN CITY — A Vatican judge on Monday ordered the butler who personally served Pope Benedict XVI to stand trial for allegedly pilfering hundreds of confidential documents from the papal apartments and passing them to an Italian journalist.

Paolo Gabriele, 45, will be tried by a Vatican tribunal this fall on charges of aggravated theft. A second defendant, Claudio Sciarpelletti, 49, a computer technician in the offices of the Holy See, is charged with aiding and abetting the butler.

Gabriele, the indictment alleges, said he stole the pope's papers because he felt the need to root out "evil and corruption in the church."

The mere fact that letters, memos and other papers made it past the massive walls of the secretive institution was astounding. But the contents of the papers — alleging widespread corruption and power struggles — gave rise to speculation that Benedict was losing his grip on the governance of the 1.2-billion-member Roman Catholic Church.

Gabriele was arrested May 23, shortly after the publication of a best-selling book that reproduced many internal letters and papers that not only seemed to indicate backbiting between high-level factions within the church but also alleged that those who sought to eradicate cronyism and price-fixing in purchases for the Vatican were silenced.

Gabriele was held in a cell in the Vatican police barracks before being transferred to house arrest in July. A layman, he lives with his wife and children inside Vatican City.

Gabriele's attorneys have said that he cooperated with authorities and that he acted alone, despite a barrage of news reports saying that a number of insiders eager to shed light on unsavory goings-on within Vatican walls had become whistle-blowers and were possibly linked in a plot.

A steady stream of documents published in Italian newspapers and on television specials preceded the May publication of "His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI," a book by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi.

Many of the leaked documents cast a negative light on Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who as secretary of state is the second in command at the Vatican. He is criticized sometimes as an inept manager and as being too controlling, and many analysts saw the leaks as an effort by his opponents to oust him. But Benedict publicly praised him and he still holds his post.

Other analysts see it as a jockeying for positions for the next conclave, when cardinals are called to elect the successor to the 85-year-old pontiff. Others said that church finances and the efforts to bring transparency to the Vatican bank with a murky past are at the root of the scandal.

In any case, the Vatican reacted swiftly, condemning all leaks and denying plots and power plays while emphasizing efforts at transparency in all finances and administration.

Benedict said he was "saddened and shocked" by the actions of a trusted servant and called for an investigation headed by three cardinals, in addition to the judicial inquiry.

The indictment says Gabriele told investigators that he had been collecting and copying documents from the desk of the pope's personal secretary, Msgr. Georg Gaenswein, for some time before contacting Nuzzi.

The butler told them, "Seeing evil and corruption everywhere in the church … I was sure that a shock, even in the media, could have been a good way to bring the church back on the right track," according to the indictment. "I realized that the Holy Father wasn't informed about some things, or had been badly informed."

He told investigators he felt he was "in a way working undercover" for the Holy Spirit, according to the 35-page document that included the indictment released by the Vatican on Monday.

The indictment says a check for 100,000 euros (about $123,000) made out to Benedict, a gold nugget and a rare 16th century translation of Virgil's "Aeneid" were found in Gabriele's apartment.

Judge Piero Bonnet wrote in the indictment that the investigation would continue.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Gabriele and Sciarpelletti would be tried together sometime after Sept. 20, when offices reopen after summer break. Their case will be heard by a panel of three lay judges. The Vatican has said the trial will be public.

Lombardi acknowledged that there were evidently other "leakers" because some published documents were not among those found in Gabriele's apartment, and that some were leaked even after the butler was in jail.

He said it would be up to the pope to decide whether the investigation would continue after the completion of Gabriele's trial and whether to disclose results of the cardinals' internal inquiry, which Lombardi has described as being of broader scope and aimed also at unearthing the reasons for the apparent discontent inside the Vatican.

Delaney is a special correspondent.

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