Vatileaks: Trial of Pope’s Butler Cloaked in Secrecy

The case of Paolo Gabriele, who faces a Vatican tribunal on Saturday, represents the biggest papal security breach in memory. But details about the case are tightly sealed.

Vincenzo Pinto, AFP / Getty Images

In most Italian criminal cases, a steady stream of leaked documents and secret files make their way into the papers long before the case ever gets to trial. Teams of lawyers effectively try their cases in the court of public opinion, tweaking their strategies based on the banter in the streets. In many ways, this strategy represents transparency to the extreme, with few surprises and an abundance of chatter by the time the gavel drops.

One outlier in this trend: the case of Paolo Gabriele, the pope’s erstwhile butler, who faces a three-judge Vatican panel on Saturday on charges of aggravated theft for stealing secret documents from the pope’s private desk. The documents exposed internal tensions and financial corruption at the Vatican.

The case represents the biggest papal security breach in memory, but details about the evidence and Gabriele’s defense strategy are as tightly sealed as a papal conclave in the Sistine Chapel. In fact, most of the information that has emerged has gone through the tight filter of the Vatican’s press office. Even the missives of Gabriele’s lawyer are doled out via the Vatican spokesperson, who is not exactly neutral.

Gabriele was arrested on May 24 after Vatican detectives searched his home where they say they found reams of papal documents, a 16th-century original version of Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, along with a nugget of gold and a check made out to Pope Benedict XVI for €100,000 from a Spanish school.

Many of the documents showed up in a bestselling book, His Holiness by Gianluigi Nuzzi, a journalist who interviewed an incognito Gabriele on his television program in late 2011 (when Nuzzi started collecting the documents). He later confirmed Gabriele’s true identity in a transmission on La7 in early September by removing the disguise on his voice.

If convicted of the theft, which he has admitted to, Gabriele—whom the indictment describes as psychologically unstable—faces four years in prison. He has asked for a papal pardon, which he will almost certainly be granted at some point after the trial has ended.

The Vatican tribunal will follow a penal code that was first established in 1889 with a few adjustments and amendments made over the years. Throughout the butler’s trial, the judges can stop the process at any time to ask for more evidence or to ask the prosecutors to further their investigations. They can also add charges and even name new suspects if evidence indicates that others are involved in the crime. And while the pope is both the victim of the crime and the head of state, he won’t likely interfere with the case, even though he technically can.

“[The] judges are independent,” says Vatican appellate magistrate Giovanni Giacobbe, who is not directly involved in the case. “The pope does not have power to tell the judges how to rule, but he can intervene at any time to pardon the defendants.”

Also on trial is Claudio Sciarpelletti, an Internet tech specialist who worked for the Vatican’s secretary of state, and faces one year in prison for transferring the documents on a USB thumb drive. Neither man seems likely to have instigated the leaks, but few hold out hope that this trial will serve to root out the real source. Instead it will likely serve as a tidy end to a scandal that has been highly embarrassing for the Holy See.

Gabriele’s trial—which could be as short as a few days or as long as a few months—is being billed as public, but only a few reporters will actually be there in person. One journalist from the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, and another from Vatican Radio, along with eight reporters from the Italian and foreign press corps (four wire services and four drawn from a hat on rotation for each hearing) will be allowed to witness what happens behind the walls of Vatican City. These reporters will be tasked with the job of disseminating all they see and hear to the rest of the press, and they’ve been instructed not to bill anything as an “exclusive” or write what amounts to the journalistic version of Dante’s Inferno.

At a Vatican briefing on Thursday, the accredited press was treated to a video clip of the courtroom where Gabriele’s trial will be heard. The tiny wood-paneled room is laden with heavy chandeliers and a papal seal carved into the ceiling. Unlike other Italian courtrooms, there is no giant Latin inscription that promises “everyone is equal under Lady Justice.” Instead a giant crucifix looms over the judges, lest anyone forget where the trial is taking place.