Pope's Butler to Stand Trial in Vatican Document Scandal

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. There's a new twist on the butler did it. It involves the Vatican's investigation into alleged theft of personal letters and documents belonging to the Pope. A Vatican judge today ordered two men to stand trial in the affair. One is Pope Benedict's butler. The other is a computer expert who works in a Vatican office. John Allen reports with National Catholic Reporter. John, who are these men and what are the accused of doing exactly?

John Allen: Well, the principle figure in this story is Paolo Gabriele, who is a 53 year-old Italian layman who for several years as served as the Pope's majordomo or butler that is a servant and official in his household. The other figure in the story is another Italian layman by the name of Claudio Sciarpelletti who worked in the Secretary of State, which is the central administrative bureaucracy in the Vatican. In essence, Gabriele is accused of stealing documents from the papal household and passing them to an Italian journalist who published them in a sensational book earlier this year entitled The Secret Letters of Benedict XVI. Sciarpelletti is accused of helping Gabriele with the transmission of these documents, in particular of having in his desk an envelope with Gabriele's name on it that contained some of these secret documents.

Werman: Is there anything scandalous in these documents?

Allen: Well, some of them are almost sort of comically silly. I mean for example, an anonymous memo written in German about an alleged to kill the Pope that was supposedly hatched by an Italian Cardinal during a business dinner in Beijing. I don't think too many people take that one all that seriously. On the other hand, some of these documents are very serious. They pertain to, in particular, Vatican finances including charges of alleged secret accounts, alleged corruption and cronyism in the operation of the Vatican city, state, and so on. So, you sort of have to sort through them one by one but at least some of these documents have hit the Vatican fairly hard.

Werman: And according to the prosecution what was Gabriele's motive?

Allen: The excerpts from the interrogation released in Rome this morning suggest that Gabriele was acting out of concern for what he saw as instances of corruption and wrongdoing in the church and felt that exposing them to the light of day would sort of be a shock to the system that might promote reform.

Werman: You know, John, this scandal has already embarrassed the Vatican and exposed alleged corruption at the highest levels. Aren't those accusations of corruption and, you know, unknown power struggles at the Vatican going to surface at a high profile public trial and put pressure on Pope Benedict at that point?

Allen: Yeah, I think in terms of exposing corruption and internal power struggles, I mean the damage is already done in the sense that the documents, hundreds of documents, that were passed to this Italian journalist have already been published in his book and many of them are now available in several languages on the internet. It is of course possible that if this trial unfolds defense attorneys could attempt to bring other people into the story. But that does not appear to be their strategy. So far Gabriele's attorneys have said that Gabriele acted on his own and it seems that they want to make this trial about his love for the Pope and his motives here, however misguided, being to try to help the church. And if that's the case, it's possible that the trial itself will not be exceptionally damaging for the Vatican. I suppose the damage is simply that he keeps the Vatican leak story alive for months to come.

Werman: John, is there one piece of evidence or any part of the story that's really intrigued you?

Allen: You know, ultimately the $64,000 question here remains did Gabriele act along. It is an article of faith among many Italian Vatican commentators that there have to be figures higher up the food chain at some level who were involved here. And so if you're looking for the most juicy bit of entry and the most potentially explosive revelations to come out of the trial I suppose it would be are there higher ups who at some level were sort of prompting Gabriele forward and will we learn their identities. That is the other shoe waiting to drop.

Werman: John Allen with the National Catholic Reporter. Thanks so much for the update.

Allen: Glad to help, Marco.