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Pope's former butler questioned by Vatican court over documents

June 5, 2012 | 11:00 am

Paolo Gabriele, the former butler of Pope Benedict XVI, underwent official interrogation for the first time since he was arrested May 23 for allegedly stealing confidential documents from the papal apartment
This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.

VATICAN CITY -- Paolo Gabriele, the former butler of Pope Benedict XVI, underwent official interrogation Tuesday for the first time since he was arrested May 23 for allegedly stealing confidential documents from the papal apartment.

Gabriele, 46, is charged with aggravated theft and is being held in one of four cells under control of the Holy See’s internal police force, a judge from the Vatican tribunal told reporters at a news conference. The judge, Paolo Papanti-Pelletier, said Gabriele could face from one to six years in prison if convicted.

Gabriele remains the only person charged in the case of confidential letters and documents that found their way outside Vatican walls and into television exposés, newspaper scoops and, more recently, a bestselling book.

Meanwhile, developments in the explosive saga continue in nearly daily installments in the Italian press, usually based on interviews with unnamed purported leakers, top-ranking clergy and others in the know about a bitter power struggle acknowledged by insiders and outside observers alike.

During a weekend trip to Milan for an International meeting on the family, Benedict was seen smiling and always close to his second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

The cardinal has been painted in the leaked reports as being an inept manager of the Vatican apparatus, of stacking the Curia administration with people close to him and obstructing efforts to clean up Vatican government and finances.

But he lashed out against the leakers and the media that publish them on Italian television Monday, complaining of violated papal privacy and vowing that “the pope will not be intimidated.”

The leakers, known as corvi or crows, have been quoted as saying they are intent on saving Benedict and the church from those inside who maneuver to gather power, influence and in some cases, money.

A letter sent to the daily La Repubblica by one such corvo on Holy See letterhead said Benedict should rid himself not only of Bertone but also of the pope's close personal aide, Msgr. Georg Gaenswein, a fellow German.

Many analysts say the letters and documents from the offices of the pope, Bertone and others are only the outer signals of distress in a divided Vatican that is out of the control of the aging pope. Observers believe that Gabriele is unlikely to have acted on his own and that the documents the Vatican gendarmes allegedly found in his apartment may have been taken at the behest of others.

Papanti-Pelletier, the judge, said more arrests could emerge as the investigation moved into the formal questioning phase, the length of which he could not predict. While the information-gathering process is covered by judicial secrecy, he said, an eventual trial would be held in a Vatican courtroom that is open to the public.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said others had been questioned by a prosecutor but that only Gabriele, the person who in his role as papal manservant probably had more access than anyone to Benedict, was under official investigation.

As he has been doing since the “Vatileaks” scandal has been sensationally filling Italian newspapers, Lombardi on Tuesday fended off the latest accounts of turmoil among the Roman Curia, the inner hierarchy that runs the worldwide Roman Catholic Church.

He said a report in a prominent Italian daily that Gabriele became a sort of “double agent” to entrap possible partners in leaking once he was aware police were on his trail was “unfounded.”

He also denied that any cardinals are under investigation as well as reports that the Vatican has formally asked Italy to permit questioning of Italians on Italian soil.

In illustrating the peculiarities of the Vatican’s justice system, Papanti-Pelletier said three elderly cardinals conducting a parallel investigation of the escape of confidential papers are only bound to inform the pope.

Likewise, cardinals would not be questioned or tried by the Vatican tribunal as it is made up of lower-ranked clergy, he said.

[For the Record, 11:58 a.m. June 5: In a previous version of this post, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone's first name was incorrectly given as Tarcision.]

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-- Sarah Delaney

Photo: Pope Benedict XVI blesses pilgrims from his "popemobile" with his then-butler, Paolo Gabriele, right, during the weekly general audience on April 25 in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Credit: Alberto Pizzoli / AFP/Getty Images

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