Paolo Gabriele: What the Pope's butler saw

Will the prosecution of Benedict's aide unravel the power struggles at the heart of the Vatican?

Rarely if ever in recent history can one person be said to have played so many roles in a single court case. The individual in question is Pope Benedict XVI, who will be the supreme judge, the victim, and according to the accused, the intended beneficiary in the Vatican leaks trial that begins this morning at the Holy See.

Benedict's former butler, 46-year-old father-of-three Paolo Gabriele, is accused of stealing sensitive documents and passing them on to a journalist whose subsequent book and TV programmes appeared to lift the lid on tawdry back-stabbing and corruption at the Vatican.

Today's trial will take place in the Vatican courtroom, employing a 19th-century penal code in place in Italy when the Vatican state came into being. The Pontiff himself will not be present. But a panel of three judges, headed by Giuseppe Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, has the power to send Mr Gabriele to an Italian prison for four years if the accused is found guilty of aggravated theft. The only other person on trial is Claudio Sciarpelletti, a 48-year-old Vatican computer expert, who faces charges of having helped Mr Gabriele.

Reinforcing Vatican claims that Mr Gabriele was a light-fingered rogue employee are the additional charges that he stole gifts intended for the Pontiff including a gold nugget, a 16th-century copy of The Aeneid and a cheque made out to Benedict for €100,000. Before his arrest, however, on 23 May this year, Mr Gabriele, with his face hidden from the camera, told the reporter Gianluigi Nuzzi that there were "at least" another active 20 whistle-blowers at the Vatican seeking to expose corruption.

The Vatican has yet to address questions on how such a low-ranking person could have organised such an effective media campaign, let alone read some of the more opaque documents, which were written in German. The general belief among Vatican experts is that, as part of an ongoing power struggle, figures much higher in the pecking order than the butler have sought to damage the Pope's right-hand man, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and even Benedict himself.

This has fuelled the belief that the prosecution of Paolo Gabriele has been, and will be, a stage-managed affair. One veteran Vatican expert, who wished not to be named, told The Independent yesterday that the process amounted to a "kangaroo court".

Many observers have predicted slapped wrists for the ex-butler swiftly followed by a magnanimous pardon from His Holiness, who, as the supreme monarch and legal authority in the tiny state, has the power of such clemency at his disposal.

The comment from the Vatican's chief spokesman Federico Lombardi that the trial "may be brief" has added to the feeling that the process will be a show trial and a rather quick one. According to the canonical law expert Romeo Astorri, of the Catholic University in Milan, 19th-century Italian penal law will facilitate a quick process by allowing much of the evidence already accrued by prosecutors to be presented without challenge. There is no jury and a majority verdict among the three judges will suffice.

A speedy process would limit embarrassing media coverage of events – and the leaked documents to which they refer, including accusations about the Vatican's tax affairs and one report that suggested Pope Benedict's new ambassador in Washington was exiled in the US because he had blown the whistle on financial fraud. The Vatican has denied these claims of corruption.

Nonetheless, more bad press is the last thing that Pope needs with the damning death-bed verdict of Milan's former archbishop still ringing in his ears. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who died a month ago, said Benedict's church was "200 years out of date".

Wrapping things up quickly would also prevent media attention being diverted from more wholesome events including the Year of Faith beginning on 11 October, and celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, the gathering supposed to mark the spiritual renewal of the Catholic Church.

Benedict is due to make a high-profile pilgrimage to Loreto in the Marche region on Thursday, which suggests the trial could be wrapped up early next week.

The Vatican prosecutor, Nicola Picardi, will probably argue that they've got Mr Gabriele bang to rights. The accused has admitted he took the documents, which were discovered in his quarters at the Vatican. Mr Gabriele has insisted, however, he was trying to help his employer-cum-spiritual leader. Mr Gabriele's defence lawyer, Cristiana Arru, is expected to persist with the defence that her client leaked the documents to assist the Pontiff in exposing and rooting out evil and corruption at the heart of the church.

In the summer, Mr Gabriele said he decided on his course of actions "because the Pope was not sufficiently informed" of what was happening. He added that: "In a way, I felt like a secret agent for the Holy Spirit."

Giovanni Giacobbe, the senior Vatican law officer, noted that under Vatican law the person in the dock is not required to take an oath before testifying. Though for a defendant as pious as Mr Gabriele that surely wouldn't have been a problem.

Instead the former butler has said his main worries are for his family. On Thursday the Italian news agency, Ansa, quoted a "source close to his family" as saying: "At the moment Paolo's main concern is for his children, above all the distress in their lives caused by the media."

No one is expecting any startling revelations to emerge during the trial. But one potentially intriguing witness is the Pope's personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, one of the few witnesses named in the indictment who confronted Mr Gabriele about the theft ahead of his arrest. The blond, dashing Monsignor Gaenswein, who is rarely away from the Pope's side, is seen by many as a key figure in the Vatican's power struggles, and has himself been the subject of speculation.

But then every nugget of news or gossip that slips out of St Peter's Square has a touch of drama about it. Whether it's the saga that Mr Nuzzi referred to in his book of leaked documents claiming that Dino Boffo, the editor of the Bishops' daily paper L'Avvenire, was a "renowned homosexual" and stalker; or the rumours to emerge last summer of secret tunnels that pass from the Vatican under the Tiber allowing randy priests to sneak out for illicit trysts in the Trastevere.

For the leadership at the Vatican, though, there is little to laugh about. The case of Paolo Gabriele is likely to be over very quickly. But answers to the questions over who's really behind Vatileaks and the presumed power struggle underpinning them, remain hidden in the labyrinthine corridors and politics of the Holy See.

And for the reigning monarch, supreme judge and executive officer of the world's tiniest state, there's no end in sight of the trials and tribulations.

Vatican court: the tribunal

Trials in the Vatican’s wood-panelled court room, in a Renaissance building at Santa Marta Square in the heart of the tiny state, are not as rare as some might imagine.

In 2011 there were 640 civil cases and 226 penal cases processed by the Vatican’s judiciary, 99 per cent of which involved some of the 18 million tourists who pass through the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica each year.

And that does not include the marriage annulments, clerical sex abuse cases and other church law matters that come before the Vatican’s ecclesiastical courts.

But the overwhelming majority of cases involve “petty crimes” such as pick-pocketing and are resolved quickly without the world’s media looking on.

The only case comparable with the trial of Paolo Gabriele occurred in 1971, when four employees of the Vatican’s telephone exchange were accused of stealing pontifical medals from the papal apartments.

The most serious crime to occur at the Vatican was the double murder in 1998 of a commander of the Swiss Guards and his wife. But the case never came to trial because the alleged killer, a young Swiss Guard, shot himself dead within minutes of supposedly carrying out the murders.

And charges were never brought against the woman who attacked the Pope during the Christmas liturgy in 2009 because she was mentally ill.

When the Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca tried to kill Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square in 1981, the gravity of that crime was considered such that the would-be assassin was handed over to Italian police to be tried in an Italian court. Gabriele is charged with aggravated theft and faces up to four years in prison if convicted.

If he and his co-defendant, Claudio Sciarpelletti, are found guilty and given custodial sentences they will be sent to an Italian jail, under an agreement between Italy and the Holy See that was made when the tiny city state came into being in 1929.

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