PUBLISHED:11:11 EST, 29 September 2012| UPDATED:11:11 EST, 29 September 2012
The Vatican today opened the trial of the Pope’s butler for allegedly stealing and leaking papal correspondence to a journalist, the worst security breach to occur in the Vatican’s recent history.
Paolo Gabriele, a 46-year-old father of three, faces up to four years in prison if he is convicted of aggravated theft in what has become known as the ‘Vatileaks’ scandal.
Gabriele, who the Pope nicknamed ‘Paoletto’ or little Paul, has already confessed, saying he acted to shed light on what he called ‘evil and corruption’ in the church.
He said he wanted to help root it out ‘because the pope was not sufficiently informed’. He has asked to be pardoned by the Pope – something Vatican-watchers say will happen if he is convicted.
While the Holy See has seen its fair share of sensational trials – in 1600 Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake after being condemned by a Vatican court for heresy – this is the most high-profile case to come before the three-judge panel since the creation of the Vatican City state in 1929.
Gabriele, who was replaced as papal butler after his arrest on 24 May, is accused of taking the pope’s correspondence, photocopying the documents and passing them to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi.
Nuzzi published some of the contents of the leaked documents in his book ‘His Holiness: The secret papers of Pope Benedict XVI,’ which was published to great fanfare 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 in the awarding of Vatican contracts. 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 seem aimed primarily at discrediting Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state and Benedict’s longtime deputy. Bertone, 77, a canon lawyer and football enthusiast, has frequently been criticised for perceived shortcomings in running the Vatican.
This morning’s proceedings opened in the austere, wood-trimmed courtroom of the Vatican tribunal, housed in a four-story palazzo inside the walls of Vatican City.
Gabriele, who was arrested in May and has been been living under house arrest since July, appeared looking pale but smiling often. He did not speak at the first session and he did not enter a plea.
During the two-and-a-half-hour session the court heard that some 82 boxes of documents were seized during searches of Mr Gabriele’s grace-and-favour apartment and at the Pope’s summer residence south of Rome, Castel Gandolfo.
Proceedings were adjourned until Tuesday, when Gabriele will be questioned. The trial heard that 13 people are listed to appear as witnesses, including the Pope’s private secretary, Georg Gaenswein, the deputy head of the Vatican’s Swiss Guards, and the head of the Vatican Gendarmerie.
However, in a blow for Gabriele, it was also revealed that the trial would not admit evidence from a special commission of cardinals that has been investigating the affair on behalf of the Pope himself, despite a plea from Gabriele’s lawyer, Cristiana Azzu, that it be considered.
The commission’s inquiries are thought to deal with some of the most sensitive matters raised by the case. Instead, the trial will be based only on an investigation by a Vatican prosecutor and Vatican police.
The trial is expected to be wrapped up in four further hearings in the coming week, before a meeting of top-level of bishops from all over the world opens in Rome on Sunday 7 October.
Today’s hearing was also told that Claudio Sciarpelletti, a Vatican computer technician who is accused of aiding and abetting the butler, will be tried separately. He faces up to a year in jail.
If he and Mr Gabriele are found guilty they will serve their time in an Italian jail as the Vatican does not have a prison of its own.
Access to Gabriele’s trial is limited, in part due to space constraints: while the court is technically open to the public, those requesting access must petition the judges to be allowed in.
Eight journalists will be selected to attend each session and report back to the Vatican press corps. No television, still cameras or recording devices are allowed, and the court transcripts won’t be available to the public.
Journalists covering the trial were required to leave their mobile telephones outside during the proceedings, and a written note delivered to the Vatican press office confirmed that the trial was indeed under way.
Observers say the Vatican’s willingness to proceed with the trial at all can be seen as an indication of its efforts to show new transparency in its inner workings.
Pope Benedict could have pardoned Gabriele as soon as he was arrested or charged, precluding any trial from getting off the ground. Instead he allowed the trial to go ahead, evidence of the ‘courage’ the Vatican is showing to be more transparent, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.
Gabriele has told Italian television he was not working alone, but had as many as 20 collaborators. It is thought as the trial continues the identities may be revealed of others involved in the scandal, who are identified in a Vatican prosecutors’ document only by letters, such as B, W, X and Y.
Prosecutors quoted Gabriele as saying during his interrogation that 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. He said he felt the pope was being kept in the dark or misinformed by his collaborators.
‘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 interrogation on 5 June.
They quoted him as saying he never intended to hurt the church or Pope Benedict.
Clerics have lamented how the episode shattered the trust and discretion that characterise 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.
Benedict himself addressed the scandal for the first time a week after Gabriele was arrested, saying the news had ‘brought sadness in my heart’.
But in a nod to his continued 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.’
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