Pope Benedict XVI has returned to the Vatican after three months on holiday to find his former butler on trial in one of the most damaging scandals of his pontificate: the leaks of stolen papal correspondence detailing power struggles, defamation campaigns and allegations of corruption at the highest level of the Catholic Church.
Paolo Gabriele is to be questioned today by the president of the Vatican tribunal, the first time the public will hear from the butler himself about the events that landed him in a Vatican detention facility on May 23, accused of stealing the documents and giving them to a journalist.
Vatican police arrested Gabriele after they found a stash of papal papers in his Vatican City home. In all, police carted off 82 boxes of papers, though not all of them were papal correspondence.
Prosecutors have said Gabriele confessed to leaking copies of the documents because he wanted to expose the “evil and corruption” in the church.
They quoted him as saying that even though he knew taking the documents was wrong, he felt inspired by the Holy Spirit “to bring the church back on the right track”.
“I believed that the Holy Father wasn’t being correctly informed about certain things,” they quoted him as saying. “In this sense, I was compelled also by my profound faith and desire that there should be light shed on everything in the church.”
The trial opened over the weekend inside the intimate ground-floor tribunal in the Vatican’s courthouse tucked behind St Peter’s Basilica.
Judge Giuseppe Della Torre has said he expects it to be over in about four more hearings. Gabriele faces four years in prison if convicted on a charge of aggravated theft.
The 46-year-old father of three seemed calm but tense in that first hearing, staring ahead impassively as his lawyer raised a handful of objections and requests.
On the opposite wall from where he sat was a photo of Benedict, his boss and the victim of the crime, but also the supreme judge in the case.
As an absolute monarch, Benedict has full judicial authority in the Vatican city state and can intervene to stop a trial.
He delegates that power to the three-judge tribunal, but he can pardon Gabriele and most expect he will if there is a conviction.
In its first hearing, the court released the list of witnesses who will testify in the case, though it is not clear who among them might do so after Gabriele.
They include the pope’s private secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, and one of the four consecrated women who care for the papal household, Cristina Cernetti.
Their testimony could shed light on the otherwise deeply private world of the small “papal family” who live, eat and pray together with the 85-year-old pope every day.
Mgr Gaenswein, Ms Cernetti and the rest of the papal entourage returned to Rome yesterday after spending the summer in the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo south of Rome.
Gabriele has said he handed the documentation off to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, whose book His Holiness: The secret papers of Pope Benedict XVI, was published to great fanfare in May. An earlier Nuzzi book, Vatican SpA, was based on a trove of damaging documents from the Vatican bank.
His Holiness contained dozens of reprinted letters and memos: some showed how wealthy donors scored audiences with the pope after handing over checks for 10,000 US dollars; others detailed the questionable interconnectedness of Italian and Holy See politics, particularly concerning the tax-exempt status for church-owned real estate.
The most damaging letter reproduced in the book was written by the former number two Vatican administrator to the pope, in which he begged not to be transferred as punishment for exposing alleged corruption. The prelate, Monsignor Carlo Maria Vigano, is now the Vatican’s US ambassador.
On the eve of Gabriele’s testimony, Nuzzi – who revealed his source after Gabriele confessed – said he hoped the one-time butler would make clear why he betrayed the pope and risked so much to air the Vatican’s dirty laundry.
“He did it because he saw through his own eyes that there were plots, stories and accusations of corruption, made by important monsignors, unclear relationships between states,” Nuzzi told Italian television TG5.
“He thought that by making these dramatic stories known he would help bring about the transparency promised by the Holy Father.”