Pope's butler goes on trial in 'Vatileaks' scandal

by Dario Thuburn, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 30 2012 12:06 AM | Updated as of Sep 30 2012 08:06 AM

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI's former butler Paolo Gabriele went on trial Saturday accused of leaking confidential Vatican memos that revealed cloak-and-dagger politics among the pontiff's closest aides.

Gabriele sat quietly for the start of a closely-watched case which could see him receive up to four years in prison for aggravated theft if convicted. The 46-year-old father of three looked tired and wan in a grey suit and grey tie.

The pope's personal secretary Georg Gaenswein, who was Gabriele's superior, is expected to be called to testify against his former charge, the court heard.

Gaenswein, 56, one of Benedict's closest confidants, confronted the butler about the leaks early in May after being tipped off by the Vatican police.

The court, after a first session of just over two hours, which mainly addressed preliminary legal questions, fixed the next hearing for Tuesday.

A once loyal servant who said he grew disgusted by the "evil and corruption" he witnessed, Gabriele has told investigators he was acting as an "agent" of the Holy Spirit to help put a scandal-weary Catholic Church back on track.

He is accused of passing reporter Gianluigi Nuzzi copies of secret papers earlier this year under the codename "Maria". Gabriele is expected to have a chance to address the court and defend his actions at Tuesday's hearing.

The trial is playing out in a 19th-century wood-paneled courtroom tucked away behind the apse of St Peter's basilica in a corner of the city state that is strictly off-limits to the millions who visit the Vatican every year.

A crucifix and a portrait of Benedict hung in the courtroom, which also had four chandeliers and a giant Vatican coat of arms on the ceiling.

The defense requested that parts of the case be declared inadmissible because of the need to defend papal secrecy and protested that the prosecution had not made clear what exactly Gabriele was accused of stealing.

They also asked that evidence from a separate investigation carried out by a committee of cardinals appointed by the pope be included in the trial.

The committee interviewed dozens of people in the Vatican and compiled a report that was submitted to the pope in July but has not been made public.

Presiding judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre threw the objections and the request out, though he said he would decide later whether evidence from Gabriele's second home at Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence, could be admitted.

Evidence confiscated from the butler's apartments -- including copies of confidential documents, electronic copying equipment and gifts intended for the pope including a gold nugget -- filled 82 boxes, the court was told.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said afterwards the hearing was "serene and orderly" and the Vatican was treating the case "with complete transparency".

The Vatican has said the 85-year-old German pope is deeply hurt by the betrayal of confidence by someone he "knew, loved and respected".

Gabriele has confessed and written a letter begging the pope for forgiveness, but that is not legally considered definitive proof for a conviction because he could have lied to protect fellow whistleblowers.

Many commentators have said they expect the pope to pardon Gabriele.

But many also question whether the butler acted alone or as part of a wider group of disgruntled Vatican employees who could include high-placed prelates.

Gabriele was originally to be tried along with Claudio Sciarpelletti, a Vatican computer technician accused of abetting his crime, but the judges accepted the lawyers' requests for the pair to be tried separately.

Intrigue over whether the former butler acted alone was fueled by comments by Sciarpelletti's lawyer, Gianluca Benedetti. He said his client was given documents to pass on to Gabriele by a Monsignor, a term for a senior Catholic cleric.

Gabriele has said there were "around 20" like-minded people in the Vatican.

The former butler has spent his entire adult life as a Vatican employee.

He served the pope his meals and clothed him and was a constant presence in official photographs, adjusting the pope's cloak, holding his umbrella or riding with him on the "popemobile" through crowds on foreign trips.

Witnesses expected include Domenico Giani, the head of the Vatican police force who has led the investigation against the former butler and Swiss Guard vice commander William Kloter, as well as one of the pope's housekeepers.

The scandal has been an embarrassment for the Vatican, though more for the apparent ease with which sensitive papers were leaked than for their content.

Gabriele, one of only 594 citizens of the Vatican, was well known and generally liked in the tight-knit community of the city state.

Psychological examinations carried out during Gabriele's 53 days in custody concluded he was "an impressionable subject" with a "persecution complex".

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