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Vatican readies for historic trial of pope's butler

27 september 2012, 15:25
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Pope Benedict XVI's at the time butler Paolo Gabriele (R) arriving with the pontiff during a weekly general audience at St Peter's square. ©AFP
Pope Benedict XVI's at the time butler Paolo Gabriele (R) arriving with the pontiff during a weekly general audience at St Peter's square. ©AFP
Pope Benedict XVI's former butler goes on trial on Saturday for leaking secret papers in the Vatican's biggest court drama in decades, revealing intrigue at the heart of the Catholic Church, AFP reports.

Paolo Gabriele was one of the people closest to the 85-year-old pope, serving him meals every day and accompanying him on extensive foreign travels before his shock arrest for passing confidential documents to a journalist.

The arrest in May rattled the close-knit community of the Vatican where Gabriele resided with his wife and three children -- a world hidden behind the Vatican walls where the butler said he saw rampant "evil and corruption".

The 46-year-old told investigators that he thought of himself as an "agent" of the Holy Spirit acting to help the pope by revealing apparent fraud in the daily running of the Vatican and rows over prestigious nominations.

The leaks focused on the divisive figure of the Vatican's Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone and some Italian press reports said the documents could have been part of an attempt by some rival Italian cardinals to unseat him.

None of the reports of a wider conspiracy have been confirmed.

Gabriele has been accused of theft with aggravating circumstances because of the trust that his post carried and he faces up to six years in prison under a late 19th century criminal code that is still in force in the Vatican.

The trial will take place in a Vatican court.

When Vatican police raided Gabriele's home in May, they discovered copies of some of the confidential documents as well as electronic copying equipment.

They also uncovered three gifts intended for the pope: a cheque for 100,000 euros ($129,000), a gold nugget and a 16th-century edition of the Aeneid.

Gabriele said that the objects had been given to him for safekeeping.

If convicted and sentenced, Gabriele would have to be sent to an Italian jail as the Vatican has no prison of its own but experts say it is far more likely that the married father-of-three would receive a pardon from the pope.

Gabriele has written a personal letter to the pope to ask forgiveness after Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the ageing pontiff felt "hurt" by the leaks allegedly carried out by someone he "knew, loved and respected".

The butler is being tried with Claudio Sciarpelletti, a computer technician at the Vatican accused of aiding and abetting.

But the investigation is ongoing and there are still many unknowns, including the possibility of whether there will be a second trial.

In his only interview, with the investigative journalist he is accused of leaking the documents to when his identity was still a mystery, Gabriele said there were "around 20 people across the Vatican" who were sympathetic.

Gabriele and Sciarpelletti are however the only two defendants and prosecutors said they were dropping far more serious charges of breaching state secrecy against Gabriele in order to speed up their investigation.

Vatican police identified two people referred to in court papers only by the letters of the alphabet "W" and "X" who apparently supplied Gabriele with documents as well as a priest referred to as "B" that Gabriele confided in.

The pope appointed a committee of cardinals to investigate and they have questioned dozens of people in the Vatican. The contents of a report submitted by this committee to the pope in July have not been made public.

Prosecutors have drawn attention to Gabriele's mental state and ordered psychiatric tests on him which concluded that he had an "impressionable" character prone to delusions of grandeur and a persecution complex.

Gabriele has apparently clashed with his defence team in the past few months and one of his lawyers, Carlo Fusco, quit after falling out with him.

One of the pope's four housekeepers said the butler always seemed "very closed", "judgemental", "competitive" and showing "no particular initiative".

Eight media organisations including AFP will be allowed to attend the trial in the 50-seat courtroom next to St. Peter's Basilica. Photographers and cameramen will not be allowed to document the proceedings.

The trial is the most high-profile to be held in the Vatican since the Holy See was established as a sovereign state by the Lateran Pacts of 1929.

The last comparable trial could be the one of four Vatican telephone exchange employees in 1971 for stealing medals from the papal chambers.

When Mehmet Ali Agca famously shot and wounded John Paul II in 1981 he was tried in an Italian court even though it happened on St. Peter's Square.

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