Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press
VATICAN CITY — There was a time when a Vatican trial could end with a heretic being burned at the stake. Paolo Gabriele doesn't risk nearly as a dire fate, but he and the Holy See face a very public airing over the gravest security breach in the Vatican's recent history following the theft and leaking of the pope's personal papers.
Gabriele, the pope's once-trusted butler, goes on trial Saturday, accused of stealing the pope's documents and passing them off to a journalist — a sensational, Hollywood-like scandal that exposed power struggles, intrigue and allegations of corruption in the highest levels of the Catholic Church.
Gabriele is charged with aggravated theft and faces six years in prison if convicted by the three-judge Vatican tribunal. He has already confessed and asked to be pardoned — something most Vatican watchers say is a given if he is convicted — making the trial almost a formality.
To be sure, trials are nothing new at the Vatican: In 2011 alone, 640 civil cases and 226 penal cases were processed by the Vatican's judiciary, 99 percent of which involved some of the 18 million tourists who pass through the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's Basilica each year. And that's not counting the marriage annulments, clerical sex abuse cases and other church law matters that come before the Vatican's ecclesial courts.
Yet this most high-profile case will cast an unusually bright spotlight on the Vatican's legal system, which is based on the 19th century Italian criminal code, and the rather unique situation in which the pope is both the victim and supreme judge in this case.
The Vatican is an elective absolute monarchy: The pope has full executive, legislative and judicial authority in the Vatican city state. He delegates that power through executive appointments, legislative commissions and tribunals, but by law he can intervene at any point in a judicial proceeding.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, has said he believes the trial will run its course without papal interference. But he has acknowledged the likelihood of a papal pardon.
Gabriele was arrested May 24 after Vatican police found what prosecutors called an "enormous" stash of documents from the pope's desk in his Vatican City apartment. Many of those documents appeared in the book "His Holiness: Pope Benedict XVI's secret papers," by Gianluigi Nuzzi, an Italian journalist whose earlier book on the Vatican bank caused a sensation.
Three days before the arrest, the pope's secretary convened a meeting of the handful of people who make up the "papal family" — the pope's two secretaries, four housekeepers, a longtime aide and the butler Gabriele — and asked if any of them had leaked the papers. Gabriel firmly denied it at the time, prosecutors said.
Gabriele later confessed to passing the documents off to Nuzzi, hoping to expose what he considered the "evil and corruption" in the church, according to prosecutors. They described Gabriele as a devout but misguided would-be whistle-blower who believed the Holy Spirit had inspired him to protect and inform the pope about the problems around him.
"I was sure that a shock, even a media one, would have been healthy to bring the Church back on the right track," prosecutors quoted Gabriele as saying during a June interrogation.
Gabriele is being tried along with a co-defendant, Claudio Sciarpelletti, a computer expert in the Secretariat of State who is charged with aiding and abetting Gabriele.
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