The pope’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, who has been languishing in a secret cell inside the fortified walls of Vatican City since May 23, has been released to house arrest. But while he has moved back into his familial apartment with his wife and three children, he cannot leave the sacred grounds of the tiny city-state until the Vatican tribunal makes the most important decision of his life. Will they absolve him of stealing papal documents and leaking them to the press, and let him go? Or, more likely, will they send him to trial, where he faces a six-year prison sentence?
The stakes are high for Gabriele, who until his arrest was best known for holding the papal umbrella when it rained and assisting the holy father with his somewhat mundane daily routine. But for the last year or so, he allegedly has also been siphoning secret scrolls from the pope’s private desk and giving copies to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, who published them in a best-selling book, according to the pope’s spokesman Federico Lombardi, who refers to Gabriele fondly by his first name even as he condemns the unthinkable act of betrayal that has become known simply as “Vatileaks”.
During the 60 days that Gabriele was under lock and key, he underwent an intensive interrogation, during which he may have implicated co-conspirators. Last week, three cardinals commissioned by the pope to run a parallel investigation into the Vatileaks scandal delivered their own sealed report to the pope. The Roman daily newspaper La Repubblica reported Monday that the cardinals named as many as three additional suspects, including the pope’s trusted German housekeeper Ingrid Stampa, who is often referred to as the “papessa” or “popess” because of her close connection to the pontiff. La Repubblica also reported that the commission named Bishop Josef Clemens. Another longtime and trusted aide of Benedict, the bishop is secretary for the Pontifical Council for the Laity but cut his teeth as an aide to the then-cardinal Josef Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before Ratzinger became pope. The third alleged suspect, according to the Italian paper, is Cardinal Paolo Sardi, a retired former papal chamberlain. But Lombardi quickly quashed the claims as falsehoods, insisting that they were “not based on objective criteria and seriously damage the honor of the people concerned, who have served the holy father faithfully for many years.” He scolded reporters for printing what he essentially dismissed as fabrications. He said the cardinals’ report was for the pope’s eyes only and insisted, “It is not this kind of information that the public has the right to know.”
The pope, who is summering in the hills outside Rome, has ultimate authority over everything that happens inside Vatican City, so before the tribunal issues an edict on the butler’s fate, the pontiff will have to approve it. He has the power to contradict the tribunal, effectively pardoning Gabriele, even if the Vatican court rules he should stand trial. Gabriele is believed to be preparing a request for such a pardon.
If the pope chooses not to forgive his once-trusted aide, and instead Gabriele is ordered to stand trial, Lombardi said hearings would likely begin in the fall and would most certainly be closed to the public and press. The decision will be made by the end of July or early days of August, he said.
Meanwhile, Gabriele’s lawyers all but admit his culpability, saying their client feels remorse for his actions but that he acted “for the love of the church.” At a press conference over the weekend, Carlo Fusco, one of two lawyers appointed by the Vatican to represent Gabriele during intensive interrogations, said his client “did what he did” because he was “moved by the desire to do something that could be an act of help, an act of love, towards the pope,” said Fusco. “He has been able to reflect much in these days and has come to the conclusion that his methods could have been different. Yes, he regrets the means he used.”
Whether Gabriele would agree with the Vatican lawyers’ assessment of his actions is yet to be seen. No one has heard a word from the butler since his arrest two months ago.