Pope Benedict XVI looked noticeably glum Sunday morning as he celebrated the otherwise joyous Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. “We are living in a new Babel,” he said during his homily. “Everybody experiences inner conflict, division, driven by human and spiritual impulses. We cannot obey them all. We cannot be egoists and generous people simultaneously.”
The 85-year-old pontiff seemed to be referring to the fact that one of his most trusted aides, Paolo Gabriele, was not nearby, as he had been for almost every Mass the pope has celebrated since 2006. Instead Gabriele, the papal butler, was in a secretive cell inside the high stone walls of Vatican City, charged with aggravated theft for allegedly stealing the pope’s personal papers and leaking them to an Italian journalist. But with no motive to betray the pope and little proof beyond the Vatican’s brief announcement of the arrest, some wonder if the butler did it at all.
Gabriele, as the primary papal servant, would have had unhindered access to the pope’s personal desk and papers, but sources close to the Vatican say most of the documents that have been leaked to the press over the last year probably never crossed the papal desk at all. The Roman Curia is a fine-tuned machine, and the pope is known to be much more interested in doctrinal issues than the day-to-day business of the Holy See. Instead the documents that have surfaced would have been handled by Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, or processed by the pope’s secretaries, who would have briefed him but not necessarily given him the paperwork.
But the butler could have been acting on someone else’s orders or acting as a conduit for documents out of the Vatican. Investigators will now look closely at Gabriele’s computer, bank, and phone records, says Giacomo Galeazzi, the Vatican expert behind the Vatican Insider blog. “Vatican investigators seek evidence, proof, and possible higher-level accomplices,” he says, predicting that more arrests will be made this week.
All of the known documents that have been leaked to the press have come to Gianluigi Nuzzi, who published most of them in his book His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI. The book contains images and transcripts of hundreds of documents that paint a picture of chaos and corruption inside the Roma Curia. Nuzzi, in an interview with The Daily Beast last week, said he never paid his sources for the book. He says they were Vatican staff who were tired of “the lies” and “inconsistencies between what was going on inside the Holy See and the public’s perception of events.” Nuzzi would not confirm or deny if Gabriele was his primary source, but after his arrest, he told The Daily Beast, “You do understand how the Vatican works, don’t you?”
Nuzzi’s book is not particularly hard on the pope. If anything, the documents portray the pontiff as a sympathetic character who spent a great deal of time troubleshooting and mediating a fierce power struggle among the Roman Curia’s top brass. The most unsympathetic character to come out of the leaked documents is Bertone, who appeared to have many enemies within the Holy See. Many of Nuzzi’s documents were directly or indirectly related to Bertone’s decisions and handling of financial affairs and international relationships. Gabriele, as the papal butler, would not have had access to any of those documents. Sources close to the Vatican say the investigation is now focused on those with access to Bertone’s desk. “This is a strategy of tension, an orgy of vendettas and pre-emptive vendettas that has now spun out of the control of those who thought they could orchestrate it,” noted Catholic historian Alberto Melloni in an op-ed in Italy’s Corriere della Sera.
Friends of Gabriele told the Italian media that he would have never betrayed the man whom he worked for. No one has heard from him since his arrest, but his wife gave a brief interview with La Repubblica newspaper in which she said she was baffled. It definitely came as a strong blow,” she said. “I cannot confirm that Paolo has not responded to the magistrates, I cannot make any comment at all.”
As a sovereign entity, the Vatican does not need to share the intricate details of its investigation into Gabriele’s alleged crime. He is being interrogated, according to Lombardi, and he has chosen two legal representatives who are qualified to practice law within the Vatican’s secret tribunal.
In his role as the papal butler, Gabriele was one of a tiny group of nonclerical staff that serves the pope on a daily basis. The “pontifical family,” as the Vatican calls the pope’s inner circle, consists of the pope, four nuns who cook his meals and clean his apartment, two clerical secretaries—German Georg Gaenswein and Maltese Alfred Xureb—and Gabriele, who helped the pope get dressed every morning and often served him his meals. He was often the first and last person to see the pope each day. He also accompanied him to meetings and masses and handed out rosaries to visiting dignitaries. He rode in the popemobile and held the papal umbrella when the pontiff had to be out in the rain.
Gabriele, a dual citizen of Italy and Vatican City, earned a tax-free salary for his daily services and reportedly was respected highly among the Vatican’s 220 residents. He and his wife and three children lived in a rent-controlled apartment inside Vatican City walls—one of the only families who can call the Holy See home. High-ranking prelates never got as much face time with the pope as Gabriele did, nor would they have built up such a close relationship with the highest-ranking member of the Catholic Church. Which is precisely why few believe the butler actually did it.