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Vatican court blocks evidence in trial of pope's ex-butler

As the trial of Paolo Gabriele begins in the theft and leaking of confidential papal papers, the court rejects a defense request to enter evidence from a parallel inquiry.

September 29, 2012|By Sarah Delaney, Los Angeles Times
  • The trial of Pope Benedict XVI's former butler, Paolo Gabriele, gets underway in a Vatican courtroom.
The trial of Pope Benedict XVI's former butler, Paolo Gabriele, gets… (L'Osservatore Romano )

VATICAN CITY — The self-proclaimed whistle-blowing butler of Pope Benedict XVI went on trial Saturday for allegedly stealing confidential documents from the papal apartments, with the court swiftly rejecting a defense request to enter evidence from a parallel investigation of broader issues of Vatican infighting.

Paolo Gabriele, 46, is charged with aggravated theft for admittedly taking hundreds of papers, including personal letters to the pope, and passing them on to an investigative journalist for use on television shows and a bestselling book describing corruption and division at the center of the Roman Catholic Church.

A pale Gabriele, dressed in a light gray suit, appeared serious but composed in the austere courtroom decorated with a cross and a portrait of Benedict.

Codefendant Claudio Sciarpelletti, a Vatican computer expert, was not in attendance. Rather, the three-judge panel decided that aiding and abetting charges against Sciarpelletti would be handled in a separate trial and that transcripts of Gabriele's conversations with Vatican police without an attorney would be scrapped.

The Vatican has allowed eight reporters from several countries to attend the trial. But, predictably, the court Saturday rejected evidence from the second investigation, conducted by three cardinals at the pope's behest.

Because of their rank, the cardinals in theory were able to call their peers for questioning, whereas investigators in the court case were not. Results from that inquiry were given to the pope over the summer, and were never intended to be made public or be part of the trial.

Testimony on the substance of the accusations in the Gabriele case was not heard Saturday, but a list of witnesses was presented that included Msgr. Georg Gaenswein, the pope's personal secretary.

Panel president Giuseppe Dalla Torre adjourned the trial until Tuesday, saying that the court may be able to finish its work by the end of the week.

The heretofore unheard-of disclosure of secret Vatican documents has attracted attention around the world. Still, many analysts believe it is unlikely that much will be revealed in court about the infighting and power struggles indicated in the documents, especially the larger question about who might have been helping Gabriele and who else wanted information leaked to the outside world.

Many believe that, if convicted, Gabriele will receive a papal pardon he asked for in a letter to the pope this summer.

A steady stream of disclosures of internal Vatican documents, which began last fall and was dubbed "Vatileaks," shed an extraordinary light on what happens within the thick walls of Vatican City, where secrecy has been the watchword for centuries.

Gabriele, who for six years served the pope his meals, prepared his clothes and accompanied him at public appearances, has admitted that he took and passed on the documents, and has told prosecutors he acted alone.

In the Vatican judicial system, a confession is not enough to convict a suspect; corroborating evidence is needed.

Gabriele, a father of three, told prosecutors he was motivated by a desire to bring attention to the "evil and corruption everywhere in the church."

According to an indictment, he told investigators he did not want to hurt the pope or the church, but believed Benedict was not aware of the internal problems that he thought posed "an obstacle or scandal for the faith."

Gabriele told prosecutors that he contacted Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, who revealed some of the documents on a television program on which Gabriele appeared with his identity obscured and his voice altered.

Gabriele, described as a fervent Catholic, told prosecutors that he believed a shock in the media "could be something healthy to bring the church back on the right track."

He said he believed that he was "infiltrated by the Holy Spirit," according to the indictment.

The program, which shocked Italians accustomed to Vatican opacity, began the embarrassing leaks that periodically appeared in the Italian media revealing corruption, price fixing and internal power struggles.

The pope, when he learned that his faithful servant "Paoletto" was accused of purloining papers while going about his regular duties, said that it "brought sadness to my heart."

The documents that were most damaging to the church's reputation were letters written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who served for two years as deputy governor of Vatican City.

In the letters, he begged Benedict to block his appointment as the Vatican ambassador to the United States, a prestigious position that nonetheless took him away from his job of cleaning up a system plagued by corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

Those letters, and many other documents, cast a negative light on Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who as secretary of state is the most powerful man in the Vatican after the pope.

When the documents first began to appear, the Vatican called it a "brutal attack" on the privacy of the pope and set the internal police force, known as the gendarmerie, on task to find the leakers, called corvi, or crows, by the Italian media.

It was not until Nuzzi's book, "His Holiness: the Secret Papers of Benedict XVI," was published in May that investigators realized that only Gabriele could have had access to certain documents.

He was arrested May 23 and spent two months in a cell within the Vatican gendarmerie before being released to house arrest.

Delaney is a special correspondent.

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