VATICAN CITY -- The sensational trial of the self-proclaimed whistle-blowing butler of Pope Benedict XVI for allegedly stealing confidential documents from the papal apartments began Saturday in a small courtroom within the Vatican walls.
Paolo Gabriele, 46, is charged with aggravated theft for admittedly taking hundreds of papers, including personal letters to the pope, and passing them to an investigative journalist who used them to produce television shows and later a bestselling book describing corruption and infighting at the center of the Roman Catholic Church.
Gabriele sat looking serious but composed inside the austere courtroom decorated with a cross and a portrait of Benedict. His co-defendant, Claudio Sciarpelletti, a Vatican computer expert accused of aiding and abetting Gabriele, did not attend the proceedings, the most sensational Vatican trial in recent memory.
A panel of three judges heard procedural requests from defense attorneys and the list of witnesses, which includes Msgr. Georg Ganswein, the pope's personal secretary, and did not get to the substance of the accusations. Rather, the panel decided that the case against Sciarpelletti will be handled in a separate trial and that transcripts of Gabriele's conversations with Vatican police without an attorney would be scrapped.
Panel president Giuseppe Dalla Torre adjourned the trial until Tuesday, saying that the court may be able to finish its work by the end of next week.
The unheard-of disclosure of secret Vatican documents attracted attention around the world. Reporters of many nationalities have descended on the Eternal City to cover the highly unusual story.
Still, many analysts believe that it is unlikely that much more will be revealed in court beyond what is already known about the infighting and power struggles revealed by the documents -- especially the larger question about who might have been helping Gabriele and who else wanted information leaked to the outside world.
Many believe that, if convicted, Gabriele will receive the papal pardon he asked for in a letter he wrote to the pope this summer. It is unlikely that results of an investigation conducted by an internal commission of three cardinals, answerable only to the pope, regarding the reasons for apparent discord within the Vatican will be made public and are not part of the current trial.
The steady stream of disclosures of internal Vatican documents, which began last fall soon and was quickly dubbed “Vatileaks,” shed an extraordinary light on what happens within the thick walls of Vatican City, where secrecy has been the watchword for centuries.
Gabriele, the trusted manservant who for six years served the pope his meals, prepared his clothes and accompanied him at public appearances, has admitted he took and passed on the documents, and has told prosecutors he acted alone.
In the Vatican judicial system, a confession is not enough to convict a suspect; other corroborating evidence is needed.
Gabriele, a father of three, told prosecutors he was motivated by a desire to bring attention to the “evil and corruption everywhere in the church.”
According to the indictment against him, he told investigators he did not want to hurt the pope or the church, but believed Benedict was not aware of the internal problems that he felt posed “an obstacle or scandal for the faith.”
-- Sarah Delaney
Photo: The pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, far right, sits in the courtroom of the Vatican tribunal on Saturday. Credit: Associated Press