VATICAN CITY -- The pope's once-trusted butler went on trial Saturday for allegedly stealing papal documents and passing them off to a journalist in the worst security breach of the Vatican's recent history -- a case that embarrassed the Vatican and may shed some light on the discreet, internal workings of the papal household.
In its first hearing in the case, the three-judge tribunal threw out some evidence gathered during the investigation of butler Paolo Gabriele, who is charged with aggravated theft. It also decided to separate Gabriele's trial from that of his co-defendant, a computer expert charged with aiding and abetting the crime.
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Gabriele is accused of taking the pope's correspondences, photocopying the documents and handing them off to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, whose book "His Holiness: The secret papers of Pope Benedict XVI," was published to great fanfare in May.
Nuzzi has said his source, code-named "Maria" in the book, wanted to shed light on the secrets of the church that were damaging it. Taken as a whole, the documents seem aimed primarily at discrediting Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state and Benedict's longtime trusted deputy. Bertone, 77, a canon lawyer and soccer enthusiast, has frequently been criticized for perceived shortcomings in running the Vatican.
On Saturday, the court also announced that the pope's personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, had been called as a witness, testimony that is sure to attract attention given that Gaenswein rarely speaks in public much less about details of the intimate, papal family of which Gabriele formed part.
Other witnesses include one of the four consecrated women who take care of the pope's apartment, a monsignor in the Vatican secretary of state, the No. 2 Swiss Guard commander and the head of the Vatican police force.
Judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre set the next hearing for Tuesday, when Gabriele will be questioned. He said he thought the whole trial could be wrapped up in four more hearings.
Gabriele faces up to four years in prison if he is convicted. He has already confessed, saying he leaked the documents to shed light on what he called the "evil and corruption" in the church, and asked to be pardoned by the pope.
Gabriele, a 46-year-old father of three, appeared calm but tense during the 2 hour, 15 minute hearing, frequently crossing his hands or clasping them in his lap. He wore a light gray suit and tie.
He sat alone on a bench on one side of the intimate, austere courtroom following the proceedings impassively. During a break in the hearing, he chatted with his attorney, Cristiana Arru, and greeted journalists with a nod and a smile as he entered and exited.
Arru raised a series of objections at the start of the hearing, only some of which were accepted by the court. One concerned two jailhouse conversations Gabriele had with the head of the Vatican police force without his lawyers present. The judges declared the conversations were inadmissible. The content of the conversations isn't public.
Arru also sought access to the report of a commission of cardinals appointed by the pope to investigate the leaks alongside Vatican magistrates. The court denied the request.
Neither Gabriele's wife nor any of his three children attended the hearing. Space for the public was limited; eight of the 18 seats were taken up by the journalists who followed the proceedings and then briefed the rest of the Vatican press corps afterwards.
Security was relaxed, with the guards at the tribunal entrance mostly concerned that none of the press or public brought in any recording devices: They even checked pens to make sure they couldn't record, and sequestered cell phones into safe boxes. No television or still cameras were allowed, except for Vatican media which filmed the first moments at the start of the hearing.
Eight members of the Vatican gendarmerie who were called as witnesses were in the courtroom as well, but left during the break after the judges made clear they wouldn't be called to testify Saturday. Domenico Giani, the pope's personal bodyguard and the head of the Vatican police force, remained for the duration of the hearing.
Given the content of the leaks and the Vatican's penchant for secrecy, the fact that the trial was open to the public and media may have struck some as unusual. In fact, such trials in the Vatican's civil and penal tribunal are routinely public. They just don't happen very often or attract much attention. The Vatican's ecclesial courts on the other hand, which handle marriage annulments, clerical sex abuse cases and other matters of church law, remain firmly off-limits to outsiders.
In some ways, the willingness of the Vatican to proceed with the trial at all is an indication of its efforts to show new transparency in its inner workings. Benedict could have pardoned Gabriele as soon as he was arrested or charged, precluding any trial from getting off the ground. Instead he allowed the trial to go ahead, evidence of the "courage" the Vatican is showing to be more transparent, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi has said.
He called such transparency unprecedented for the Vatican and likened it to the Holy See's recent decision to submit its financial institutions to outside scrutiny by the Council of Europe's Moneyval committee.