The Pope’s Butler Testifies: Innocent of Theft, Guilty of Betrayal?

As the church takes the ungainly role of prosecutor, Paolo Gabriele says he acted because he believed the Pope whom he loved was misinformed

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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

Before Paolo Gabriele turned himself in to Vatican authorities for passing Pope Benedict XVI’s personal papers to the press last May, he wanted to do one last thing. “I needed to surrender myself to the authorities, but I didn’t know how,” the former butler to the Pope recalled on Tuesday, during testimony in the trial against him. “The first step was spiritual. I went to a confessor and explained what I had done.”

Gabriele, a layman with a wife and three children, was calm and sometimes smiling during the three hours he spent giving evidence in the second day of his trial on charges of aggravated theft. He wore a light gray suit. His face was thin, barely a shade darker than the cream-colored wall of the courtroom behind him. As butler, Gabriele could hardly have been in a more intimate position with the head of the Catholic Church. He had served the Pope his meals, helped him pack for trips and, when the weather turned foul, he had held the umbrella that protected the Pontiff from the rain. “Concerning the accusation of aggravated theft, I declare myself innocent,” he said. “I feel guilty for having betrayed the trust vested in me by the Holy Father, whom I loved as if I were his son.”

(MORE: The Trial of the Pope’s Butler and How the Vatican Works)

Described at the time of his arrest as a shy and devout Catholic, Gabriele was known around the Vatican as Paoletto, meaning “little Paolo.” On Tuesday, Gabriele explained how his actions were motivated by concern that the Pontiff was being misled. During their meals together, the Pope would sometimes ask questions that Gabriele felt the Pontiff should have known the answers to. “I became convinced that it’s easy to manipulate somebody with such an enormous decisionmaking power,” Gabriele said.

Gabriele may have begun collecting documents as early as 2006, but in his testimony he said he ramped up his efforts in 2010, after Carlo Maria Viganò, the archbishop who was then in charge of the Vatican’s efforts at financial reforms began running into resistance. Viganò was later removed from his post at the Vatican and made the Holy See’s ambassador to the U.S. Among the documents published in the book by Gianluigi Nuzzi, the journalist to whom Gabriele had passed his papers, are letters from Viganò alleging crooked contracting.

The documents were each photocopied twice, in Gabriele’s office at the Vatican, one copy to give to the press, the other for safekeeping; he would eventually give these to the priest who heard his confession. Though Gabriele insisted that he had acted alone, he named others with whom he said he had discussed “the general atmosphere” in the Vatican, including two Italian Cardinals, Paolo Sardi and Angelo Comastri, and Ingrid Stampa, a longtime assistant to the Pope. Gabriele said he did not receive money or gifts in exchange for the documents. He denied any knowledge of a $130,000 check to the Pope or a gold nugget that investigators said they found in his quarters, adding that he did not know the value of a 16th century edition of the Aeneid, which he had taken home to show his son and daughter.

(MORE: The Vatican Scandals: What Did the Pope’s Butler Know?)

On questioning from his lawyer, Gabriele said he had been kept for the first two to three weeks of his detention in a room so small that he couldn’t stretch his arms, where the lights were left on 24 hours a day. “There was no light switch and so I suffered loss of vision,” he said. On the first night in the Vatican police station, he added, “I was even refused a pillow.” The Vatican has said Gabriele’s detention conformed to international standards, that the lights were kept on for security reasons and that Gabriele was supplied with a mask against it.

Among the other witnesses who testified on Tuesday was Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s private secretary and the man who first suspected the butler. Gabriele stood when Gänswein entered the courtroom and again when he left. Gänswein never looked him in the face.