Vatican judges ordered an investigation into the treatment of the Pope’s former butler today after his lawyer claimed her client had been kept in inhumane conditions since his arrest over the “Vatileaks” scandal.
Facing trial in the tiny Vatican court room tucked behind St Peter’s Basilica, Paolo Gabriele, 46, insisted that he was innocent of theft charges but guilty of abusing the pontiff’s trust. He is accused of stealing sensitive documents and passing them to the media – in what became known as the “Vatileaks” scandal – and faces up to four years in an Italian prison if found guilty of aggravated theft. But many believe a magnanimous pardon may await him, should he be convicted.
In today’s three-hour session he admitted to the court that he had photocopied the sensitive documents in the Pope's apartment, but added that he did not regard this as a crime.
“Concerning the accusation of aggravated theft, I declare myself innocent,” Mr Gabriele said in his first public comments since his arrest in May. “I feel guilty for having betrayed the trust that the Holy Father gave me.”
No television cameras or microphones were allowed into the wood-panelled Vatican tribunal. Instead a pool of ten journalists picked from Catholic publications and news agencies listened to the former servant and father of three insist that he was acting to protect the Pontiff, who, Mr Gabriele said, was easily manipulated by unscrupulous Vatican officials.
“What really shocked me was when I sat down for lunch with the Holy Father and sometimes the Pope asked about things that he should have been informed on,” Mr Gabriele told the three-judge panel. ”It was then that I became firmly convinced of how easy it was to manipulate a person with such enormous powers.“
But there was a surprise development during the session when Mr Gabriele’s lawyer, Cristiana Arru, claimed her client had been kept in inhumane conditions following his arrest, prompting the judge to order an investigation.
The court heard that the tiny Vatican prison cell, where Mr Gabriele was held for almost three weeks was so cramped that the prisoner was not able to stretch out his arms. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the dimensions of the cell were in line with international standards.
When proceedings resumed Mr Gabriele told the court he acted alone. But many observers believe the former butler was a pawn in a larger conspiracy to discredit the Vatican leadership.
Marco Rizzi, a Vatican expert at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, said today: “There obviously are other people involved in this business. But whether other names will emerge we don’t know. The Vatican is very good at concealing things.”
A second person, Claudio Sciarpelletti, a 48-year-old Vatican computer expert, will be tried for the minor charge of assisting Mr Gabriele, should the ex-butler be found guilty.
Mr Gabriele has said he handed the documentation to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, whose book ”His Holiness: The secret papers of Pope Benedict XVI,“ was released in May.
It contained dozens of reprinted letters and memos: some showed how wealthy donors won audiences with the pope after handing over cheques for thousands of euros. Others detailed the questionable collaboration between the Vatican and the Italian government regarding the Church’s continued exemption from property tax.
Perhaps the most damaging letter reproduced in the book was written by the senior Vatican figure Monsignor Carlo Maria Vigano, in which he begged not to be transferred from the Vatican as punishment for blowing the whistle on alleged corruption. The Monsignor was nonetheless made the Vatican's US ambassador.
At the start of the trial on Saturday, Mr Gabriele suffered a setback when judges turned down the defence’s request to admit as evidence a confidential report on the Vatileaks scandal compiled by a committee of cardinals appointed by the pope. Mr Gabriele’s lawyer had hoped to explain her client’s motives by admitting this as evidence. Some reports have suggested that another 30 people have been questioned as part of that probe.