In Court

Inside the Trial of the Pope’s Butler

The Pope’s personal attendant, accused of leaking sensitive documents, faced a judge today.

L'Osservatore Romano / AP Photo

Looking clean-shaven and well rested, Pope Benedict XVI’s former butler faced a three-judge Vatican tribunal on Saturday morning facing charges of aggravated theft for allegedly stealing his boss’s private papers and leaking them to the press.

The trial was attended by Vatican public relations members, the commander of the Vatican’s elite Swiss guard, two Vatican journalists, and eight regular journalists—whose pens were confiscated on entry to the courtroom, just in case they contained covert listening devices. The reporters were then given identical orange pens so they could act as eyes and ears for the Vatican press corps, who they briefed after the semi-public hearing ended.

Paolo Gabriele is standing trial with Claudio Sciarpelletti, a computer technician who worked for the Holy See Secretariat of State. Sciarpelletti, who did not attend the trial in person, faces charges of abetting Gabriele’s theft of the documents. Sciarpelletti’s lawyer Gianluca Benedetti pleaded his client’s innocence and then petitioned the court for a separate trial for his client, insisting that the two suspects were no more than informal acquaintances and not partners in crime. Gabriele nodded in agreement at his co-defendant’s lawyer’s remarks. Judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre approved the motion, and the two trials will now be separated.

Cristiana Arru, Gabriele’s lawyer, then petitioned the court to order an independent examination of fingerprints on a nugget of gold that was found in Gabriele’s apartment. She implied that her client has no idea how the nugget got there, and that in order to find out if it was planted or actually stolen, more fingerprint analyses must be taken. This time Dalla Torre denied the motion after Nicola Picardi, the Vatican’s prosecutor—referred to in Vatican-speak as the Promoter of Justice—explained that the nugget had passed through too many hands and thus any additional fingerprinting was useless. Arru also asked the court to remove any evidence garnered from Gabriele during conversations with the head of the Vatican police that were conducted without a lawyer present. She also asked that information gathered via a hidden camera placed in Gabriele’s Vatican City apartment not be entered into evidence because it had not been authorized. The judge ruled that the conversations were inadmissible, but that the hidden camera was actually authorized, meaning the surveillance evidence could be used against the butler.

Arru also asked that detailed information garnered from a commission of cardinals that was ordered by the Pope that ran as a parallel investigation into the VatiLeaks scandal be admitted into this case. The judge declined to allow it into the court dossier unless the pope himself actually requests that it be used in this criminal trial.

The trial will reconvene on Tuesday, October 2, with Gabriele giving testimony in his defense. Unlike other court systems, the Vatican tribunal relies on the head judge to pose all questions to the witnesses on the stand. There is no cross-examination of witnesses and even though Gabriele has already confessed to leaking the documents, his admission must be corroborated. He is not considered a reliable witness because it is assumed in the Vatican court that he could be lying to protect himself or others.

The pope’s personal secretary, George Ganswein, will also be called to the witness stand, along with Cristina Cernetti, one of the four nuns who takes care of the pope’s daily needs. Cernetti would have worked very closely with Gabriele in his capacity as papal butler.

The trial is expected to wrap up sometime next week, putting an end to one of the most embarrassing scandals the Catholic Church has endured. But despite the seeming transparency with reporters in the courtroom and a first-ever glimpse at the inner workings of the Vatican City’s wheels of justice, the fact is that this trial will never even touch on the larger questions in the case, including who was the mastermind behind the leaks. It seems implausible to most people that Gabriele would have had the insider knowledge to know just which documents would hurt the church the most, and which would highlight the sort of financial corruption and infighting these leaks expose.

By the end of the trial there will be little doubt that the butler did it, but what will be missing is any explanation as to why.