VATICAN CITY — A verdict in the case of the pope's butler accused of leaking papal documents may help close one of the most damaging scandals of Pope Benedict XVI's papacy. But even after Paolo Gabriele's fate is decided by a Vatican tribunal Saturday, a core question will remain open: Did he really act alone in exposing the secrets of one of the most secretive institutions in the world?
Gabriele faces up to four years in prison if he's convicted of aggravated theft, accused of stealing the pope's private correspondence and passing it onto journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, whose book revealed the intrigue, petty infighting and allegations of corruption and homosexual liaisons that plague the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. It has been, in short, the gravest security breach of the papal entourage in recent memory.
In his testimony this week, Gabriele insisted "in the most absolute way" that he had no accomplices.
But in earlier statements to prosecutors, he named a half-dozen people who "suggested" he take action, among them Vatican cardinals and monsignors. He even identified one layman as the source of a segment of Nuzzi's book "His Holiness: Pope Benedict XVI's secret papers" detailing some questionable conflicts of interest of some Vatican police officers.
Gabriele distanced himself from such statements during the trial, saying he didn't recognize himself in the prosecutors' reconstruction of his interrogation.
That said, on the eve of Gabriele's verdict, Nuzzi tweeted that after Gabriele's fate is decided, "Will the protagonists of the papers who emerged be persecuted with courage?"
There is another suspect in the case: Claudio Sciarpelletti, a 48-year-old computer expert in the Vatican secretariat of state who is charged with aiding and abetting the crime. Police say they found an envelope in his desk that said "Personal P. Gabriele" on it, with documentation inside.
Sciarpelletti has said Gabriele gave him the envelope, and later, that someone identified in court documents as "W'' gave it to him to pass onto Gabriele.
Sciarpelletti's lawyer successfully got his case separated out at the start of Gabriele's trial. But attorney Gianluca Benedetti has said his client was innocent and that, regardless, there were no "reserved documents" in the envelope.
Gabriele has a chance to deliver a final statement to the court Saturday, after prosecutor Nicola Picardi and defense attorney Cristiana Arru give their closing arguments. A verdict is expected later in the day by the three-judge panel.
Gabriele told the court that he stood by his June 5 confession to prosecutors, and in his testimony, he detailed how he would photocopy papal correspondence in broad daylight, using the office photocopier in the presence of the pope's two private secretaries. He pleaded innocent to the charge of aggravated theft but said he was guilty of "having betrayed the trust of the Holy Father, whom I love as a son would."
The motive wasn't discussed during the trial, but Gabriele told prosecutors that he thought that exposing the "evil and corruption" that he saw around him would help put the church back on the right track.
Arru focused much of her questioning of defense witnesses on the search of Gabriele's home: Police said 82 moving boxes of papers were carted out of Gabriele's Vatican City apartment on May 23, though only about 1,000 pages were pertinent to the investigation.
Police have said that contrary to Gabriele's initial claims, the documentation contained originals, not just photocopies of papal correspondence. The originals were distinguished by the seals, stamps and internal processing codes used in the Vatican, they said.
Some bore the pope's own handwriting, including with the word "destroy" written at the top in German, police told the court.
Arru questioned why police didn't use gloves in the search, suggesting the evidence may have been contaminated. Police insisted gloves aren't usually used in searches of documentation.
She pressed each of the six police officers on the stand about a purported gold nugget and check for $100,000 made out to the pope that were seized during the search. No one could say precisely where they were found. Gabriele testified he had never seen either before.
Arru queried them on the actual size of the armoire in Gabriele's study that contained the bulk of the documentation, seeming to try to minimize the quantity of documentation seized. No inventory was ever made of the documents.
And she raised questions about police conduct in seizing documentation from the apartment Gabriele used in Castel Gandolfo, where the pope spends his summers. The Vatican didn't obtain authorization for the seizure from Italian authorities, who have jurisdiction.
If Gabriele is convicted and sentenced to jail time, the Vatican has said he would serve his sentence in an Italian prison since the Vatican doesn't have long-term detention facilities. But it's not clear whether such arrangements have been made, given that Italy is a different country than the one that tried Gabriele.
In the end, those arrangements may not be necessary: a papal pardon is widely expected.Comment on this story
Gabriele spent his first two months in detention in a secure room inside the Vatican police barracks. During the trial, Arru complained about the conditions under which Gabriele spent his first 20 days: Gabriele testified that the room was so small he couldn't stretch open his arms, and that the lights were kept on 24 hours a day.
Vatican police insisted the conditions conformed to international standards, that the lights were kept on for safety and security and that regardless Gabriele had said the light would keep him company. The officer in charge of Gabriele's care testified that the butler had repeatedly thanked him and his colleagues for the treatment he and his family received.
The Vatican prosecutor immediately opened a separate investigation, meaning the scandal isn't over yet.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield