Pope's Butler Professes Innocence, But Says He Betrayed Pontiff

Oct 2, 2012
Originally published on October 2, 2012 1:14 pm

Pope Benedict XVI's former butler took the stand at his trial Tuesday and offered a somewhat contradictory message: He declared himself innocent of stealing papal documents, but acknowledged betraying the trust of Pope Benedict XVI.

As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, Paolo Gabriele, 46, is charged with stealing documents pointing to corruption and power struggles with the church. Prosecutors say Gabriele has confessed to giving the material to an Italian journalist, and that his motive was to expose "evil and corruption" in the church.

But when asked to respond in court to the charge, The Associated Press quoted Gabriele as saying: "I declare myself innocent concerning the charge of aggravated theft. I feel guilty of having betrayed the trust of the Holy Father, whom I love as a son would."

Sylvia reports that the former butler also said he was jailed under harsh conditions and faced psychological pressure after he was arrested in May.

Gabriele said his cell was so narrow he couldn't stretch out his arms.

"For the first 15-20 days, the light was on 24 hours a day, and there was no switch. As a result, my eyesight was damaged," Gabriele added.

Prosecutors say 82 boxes of papal documents were found at Gabriele's Vatican City apartment. The material is most critical of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a longtime close aide to the pope and the Vatican secretary of state.

Gabriele was arrested in May, and his trial, which began Saturday, is being held before a three-judge tribunal at the Vatican. He could face up to four years in prison. But even if convicted, he could be pardoned by the pope.

Until his arrest, Reuters says, Gabriele was thought to be "an unassuming and devout servant."

Time magazine writes of the trial, and how the Vatican works, that "court proceedings have been open to the public — sort of."

Earlier today, NPR's Audie Cornish talked with journalist John Allen from the National Catholic Reporter, who said that while Gabriele — if he's found guilty — could be sentenced to several years in an Italian prison, it's more likely that "at the end of this there will be an act of clemency from Pope Benedict XVI." The church, Allen said, wants to show it respects "due process." The risk for the church, he added, is that "a trial means there could be new bombshells" about what goes on inside the Vatican.

Much more from Audie's conversation with Allen is due on All Things Considered later today. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-broadcast version of the interview to the top of this post.

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A high-profile trial is underway this week in a Vatican courtroom. At the center of the case, a former member of Pope Benedict's inner circle - his butler. Paolo Gabriele faces charges of stealing papal documents and leaking them to an Italian journalist. The documents were included in a book published this past May that alleges corruption and cronyism inside the Vatican. For more on the story, we're joined by John Allen, senior reporter for the National Catholic Reporter. Welcome, John.

JOHN ALLEN: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: For those of us who haven't been following the case as closely, let's take a step back, what exactly is Gabriele accused of doing?

ALLEN: Well, essentially he's charged with being the mole at the heart of the explosive Vatican leaks scandal, which is a scandal that erupted in its first stages in January, and sort of metastasized through much of the spring. At the end of it, hundreds of confidential Vatican documents on a wildly diverse range of topics were leaked to Italian newspapers and Italian TV and, eventually, collected into a book by an Italian journalist called "The Secret Papers of Benedict the XVI." The topics included in these documents range from the almost sort of comically silly to things like an alleged plot to kill the pope that was supposedly hatched by an Italian cardinal over a business dinner in Beijing to extremely serious accusations of financial mismanagement and corruption in the Vatican bank and in the government of the Vatican city state. And, of course, once these documents started getting out, the hunt was on to figure out who exactly was leaking them. At the end of it, in May, the pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested and is now facing trial. If convicted he could be looking at six years in an Italian prison.

CORNISH: Now Gabriele admits that he leaked the documents, and he says that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to do it, correct? I mean, what else have we heard from his defense today?

ALLEN: Well, in the early days of the trial, he has pleaded not guilty to the charge of aggravated theft. Essentially, the argument from his defense team is that yes, Gabriele took these documents, photocopied them, and handed them off to an Italian journalist. But he didn't understand himself to be stealing. Instead, his perception was that critical information about what was going on in the Vatican was not getting to the pope, and the only way to break that log jam, was to make that information public.

CORNISH: John, how significant is this case? I don't know how rare a Vatican trial of this kind is, and, you know, after years of hearing about the Catholic sex abuse scandal, what's the sense of how significant this particular case is?

ALLEN: Well, first of all, when you're talking about an institution with more than 2,000 years of history, you don't get a chance to use a word like unprecedented very often, but this really is. I mean, there never before has been a public Vatican criminal trial for a senior official charged with stealing documents from the pope. It simply hasn't happened before. Now, look, in terms of the court of popular opinion, you know, the arrest of the papal butler for purloining documents sort of falls under the category of news of the weird. It doesn't rate. But, internally, I would say, that the Vatican leak scandal, and this trial, is extraordinarily significant because, unlike many other scandals, this one has unfolded at the heart of the Vatican itself and it has raised issues of trust. I mean, it's kind of created a climate of doubt about who you can have faith in, because at the end of the day, you know, if you can't trust the pope's own butler to keep his secrets, who can you trust?

CORNISH: That's John Allen, senior reporter for the National Catholic Reporter. Thank you, John.

ALLEN: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.