The Trial of the Pope’s Butler and How the Vatican Works

In a small corner of the tiny Vatican state, court proceedings have been open to the press — sort of

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Osservatore Romano / Reuters

Pope Benedict's former butler Paolo Gabriele, right, accused of stealing and leaking the Pontiff's personal papers, sits at the start of his trial at the Vatican on Sept. 29, 2012

It was what passes for transparency at the Vatican. Only eight reporters were permitted to attend the opening session on Saturday of the trial of the former butler to Pope Benedict XVI, Paolo Gabriele, who is accused of stealing and leaking the Pontiff’s personal papers. Before entering the courtroom, the journalists were asked to check their purses, cell phones and keys and pass through a metal detector. Even their writing implements were confiscated, replaced once they were inside by orange ball-point pens supplied by the Vatican. “They basically did not want you to bring in pens for fear that they were either audio or visual recording instruments,” says one of the attendant reporters, who asked to remain anonymous citing rules drawn up by the Vatican press corps forbidding the journalists who attended from telling their personal stories.

The trial, which is expected to wrap up by the end of the week, has been billed by some journalists as the most significant legal proceeding since the 16th century when Giordano Bruno was tried for heresy and burned at the stake. But that’s less a reflection of the gravity of the charges against Gabriele than of the type of cases the Vatican’s judicial system is usually called upon to handle. The proceedings took place in a corner of the Vatican city state, in a small courtroom normally reserved for petty crimes involving tourists or pilgrims. If convicted, Gabriele could face up to four years in prison — a term that would be served in an Italian facility.

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To be sure, there’s little doubt whether the butler did it. Gabriele has confessed, telling the Vatican’s judicial authorities that he feared that Benedict was being kept “uninformed or misinformed” and that he acted to expose “corruption everywhere in the church.” The indictment quotes him as saying, “In a way, I felt like a secret agent for the Holy Spirit.” Gianluigi Nuzzi, the Italian journalist to whom Gabriele passed the papers, confirmed to TIME that the butler was a source for his book, Your Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, in which he reproduced dozens of leaked letters, memos and cables, many of them from within the office of the Pope.

Nuzzi sees Gabriele, a devout Catholic, as having done Benedict a favor. “Sure, he betrayed his trust and he brought him suffering,” Nuzzi says. “But he did it with goodwill.” The documents published by Nuzzi included letters from Italian businessmen and media personalities, with bank checks attached, inquiring after favors or meetings with the Pope. Others are warnings of nepotism and corruption from a high-level Vatican official in charge of financial reforms, who was later transferred. “To me, it seem obvious,” Nuzzi says. “What hurts the Vatican or the church more? Gabriele, who released these documents? Or the acts that these documents recount?”

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In the tightly controlled proceedings, the Vatican has sought to strike a balance between public disclosure and control over its image. By request of both the prosecution and defense, no recordings were allowed, save for a brief two minutes of silent B-roll filmed by Vatican officials at the beginning of each day. On Saturday, the judges ruled that the findings of a separate commission — led by three Cardinals appointed directly by the Pope — would not be admissible in Gabriele’s proceedings. They also ruled that Gabriele’s co-defendant, Claudio Sciarpelletti, a computer expert in the Secretariat of State, would be tried separately. The Pope’s personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gänswein, is expected to testify later in the week. “It’s a delicate trial,” says Andrea Tornielli of the website Vatican Insider. “Because it involves the privacy of the Pope.”

With its outcome all but preordained, the trial can be seen as an effort by the Vatican to demonstrate due diligence. Indeed, many in the Vatican believe Benedict will pardon his former servant shortly after the proceedings conclude. Had he done so earlier, the trial could have been avoided altogether. “If the Pope had pardoned him immediately, people would have said ‘The Vatican wants to hide the truth,’ ” says Tornielli. “The process serves to say, ‘Look, we’re doing a public trial. You now know everything there is to know.’ ” He adds: “Even if you can’t record it.”

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