The Vatican is in full damage-control mode one week after the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested for stealing the pope’s personal papers and leaking them to an Italian journalist. Tales of finger-pointing cardinals lobbing wild accusations against each other have made the hallowed Holy See look more like a nest of vipers. If you read the Italian press, one can’t help but visualize angry prelates in billowing cassocks shaking their fists as they accuse each other of being the “mastermind” behind the butler’s thievery. One Italian paper even suggested that an unnamed laywoman had secretly ordered the butler to do it. But the Vatican, of course, denies it all.
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, has insisted that “no woman” and “no cardinals” are under investigation. The butler is accused alone, he says, and he alone will face the Vatican’s secretive tribunal. Each missive from the Holy See is scripted, right down to today’s editorial in the Vatican’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. In a less-than-spontaneous interview with Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the Vatican undersecretary of State, the newspaper addressed the scandal for the first time with an article called, simply, “The Papers Stolen From the Pope.”
Becciu told the paper that the butler’s deeds were not only against the pontiff. They were an act against God. “The pope was not merely robbed of letters. Violence has been done to the consciences of those who turn to him as Vicar of Christ, an assault has been made on the ministry of the Successor of the Apostle Peter. In many of the documents published we find ourselves in a context we presume to be of total trust. When a Catholic speaks to the Roman Pontiff, he is duty bound to open himself as if he were before God, partly because he feels that he is guaranteed absolute confidentiality.”
Gabriele, who has been held in custody in a “secure room” inside the Vatican’s fortified walls since last Thursday, has yet to be formally questioned, Lombardi said, even though he has been charged with “aggravated theft.” He has met with his lawyers, Carlo Fusco and Cristiana Arru, who were mandated by the Vatican to defend him. Lombardi says their first meeting, was “broad,” “fruitful,” and “very positive”—implying that it was also not exactly private. Gabriele faces 30 years if convicted of aggravated theft. If eventually convicted, the Vatican would need Gabriele to serve his sentence somewhere other than the tiny city state, which has no prison. His trial will very likely be closed to the public, but Lombardi did indicate that the Holy See was considering asking the Italian state for assistance if investigations lead to suspects outside the Holy See’s jurisdiction.
In particular, they have indicated that the publication of the documents by Gianluigi Nuzzi in his book His Holiness is a “criminal act. ”But because Nuzzi is an Italian citizen, he is outside the Vatican’s criminal-justice jurisdiction. Nuzzi refuses to name the sources for his book, and will not confirm or deny if he ever met the butler. “This sounds like the plot of the Walt Disney movie Aristocats,” he told The Daily Beast. “Except it’s not very funny.”
At a press conference at the Foreign Press Association in Rome last week, Nuzzi said he hadn’t been questioned in the matter by any legal entity yet, but he welcomed the idea of collaboration between the Vatican and Italian authorities. “It would be unprecedented cooperation on the part of the Vatican,” he said.
Hints of new arrests surface daily in the Italian press, but so far Gabriele is the only known suspect. Though it is no secret that the Vatican would likely never admit if a high-ranking cardinal was actually implicated in the VatiLeaks scandal, or if the pope himself somehow knew what was going on. Just the same, Vaticanists will be eyeing high-level transfers to hard-luck posts, which can be perceived as a disciplinary measure. “The pope is treating this as a test, not a tragedy,” Lombardi told reporters at a VatiLeaks briefing on Tuesday. “The pope is hurt because Gabriele was close to him, someone he knew well, loved, and respected.”
Gabriele’s voice has been silenced—and for now, so have the leaks—but everyone watching this mystery unfold in Rome is waiting for the next twist in this bizarre case of the pope, his butler, and the Vatican’s spilled secrets.