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Pope’s butler on trial in ‘Vatileaks’

Updated: 06:15, Sunday September 30, 2012

Pope's butler on trial in 'Vatileaks'

Pope Benedict XVI’s former butler Paolo Gabriele has gone on trial accused of leaking confidential Vatican memos that revealed cloak-and-dagger politics among the Pope’s closest aides.

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

The pontiff’s personal secretary Georg Ganswein, who was Gabriele’s superior, will be called to testify against his former charge, the court said.

Ganswein, 56, was Gabriele’s direct superior and confronted the butler about the leaks early in May after being tipped off by the Vatican police.

After a first session of just over two hours, mainly addressing preliminary legal questions, the court fixed the next hearing for next Tuesday.

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

Gabriele is accused of passing investigative reporter Gianluigi Nuzzi copies of secret papers this year under the codename ‘Maria’.

The trial is playing out in a 19th-century 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 of visitors who visit the Vatican every year.

Television cameras are banned and only 10 journalists are allowed access.

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.

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

But many also question whether he really acted alone or as part of a wider group of disgruntled Vatican employees who could even include high-placed prelates. An investigation into the ‘Vatileaks’ scandal is ongoing.

Gabriele has spent his entire adult life as a Vatican servant, starting out as a cleaner at the Secretariat of State – the main administrative body of the Catholic Church – and becoming butler to the Pope in 2006.

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.

The leaked letters offer an extraordinary glimpse into the inner workings of the Holy See. The batch includes letters from a former head of the Vatican governorate alleging he was forced out of his post for tackling widespread fraud.

Vatican gendarmes arrested Gabriele on May 23 and raided his home behind the Vatican walls, finding copies of confidential documents and gifts intended for the Pope including a gold nugget and a 100,000 euro ($A124,630) cheque.

Gabriele, one of only 594 citizens of the Vatican, was well known and generally liked in the tightly knit community that inhabits the historic city state, but there were also voices of criticism cited in court documents.

‘He was very closed,’ one of the Pope’s four housekeepers was quoted as saying by investigators. ‘He always seemed to be competitive and seeking approval for his behaviour. He was judgmental in daily life.’

Vatican police also ordered psychological examinations of Gabriele during his 53 days in custody, which concluded he was ‘an impressionable subject able to commit a variety of actions that can damage himself and/or others’.

The only recorded interview that Gabriele has given was in February with Gianluigi Nuzzi, the investigative journalist who published the leaks.

Gabriele spoke in the darkness, his voice muffled and his identity hidden.

The butler expressed frustration with a culture of secrecy in the Vatican – from the mysterious disappearance of the daughter of a Vatican employee in 1983 to a quickly hushed-up double murder and suicide by a Swiss guard in 1998.

‘There is a kind of omerta against the truth, not so much because of a power struggle but because of fear, because of caution,’ Gabriele said in the interview.

He told Nuzzi there were ‘around 20’ like-minded people in the Vatican.

Gabriele said he was aware of the consequences of his actions but said the potential to change something in the Vatican was worth the risk.

‘Being a witness to truth means being ready to pay the price,’ he said.

The court ruled on Saturday that Claudio Sciarpelletti, a Vatican computer technician who is accused of abetting Gabriele’s crime, will be tried separately. No dates for the next Sciarpelletti hearing were set.

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