Papal Butler in Pickle for Purloining Private Papal Papers

In one of the most bizarre stories to come out of the Vatican in years, Pope Benedict XVI’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, went on trial Saturday for the aggravated theft of the pope’s confidential papers.  Gabriele subsequently leaked the papers to the press causing an unprecedented breach of security at one of the most secretive places on earth.  Ultimately, the breach led to the publishing of a tell all book, His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Pope Benedict XVI by Italian journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi.  The butler was arrested back in May and was briefly held by authorities before being released into house arrest.  He was formally indicted in August after a full investigation into the charges.

Interestingly, despite a full confession and admission of guilt by Gabriele, the trial must continue since there is no plea bargaining under Vatican law, and judges must independently verify the facts of a case.  The trial will take place at a secular court in Vatican City made up of a three judge panel and presided over by the tribunal’s president, Judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre.  Gabriele is expected to take the stand at a hearing this Tuesday followed by at least eight other witnesses over the coming days.  If convicted, he faces up to four years which he would have to serve in an Italian prison.  The Vatican does not have a prison of its own.  However, it is widely believed that if he is convicted, the pope would grant him a pardon.

Gabriele claims he stole and leaked the papers because he saw “evil and corruption everywhere in the church” which he believed must be exposed because the pope “was not correctly informed” about what was going on.  The shock of public exposure, he thought, “could be a healthy thing to put the church back on the right track.”

Some of the leaked documents opened scandalous doors into questionable administrative practices as well as inner wrangling at the Vatican.  Among the documents were letters written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in which he openly worried that he had made enemies within the Curia and beyond after rooting out corruption and financial mismanagement in the Vatican City administration.  Then the second-ranking official in the part of the Curia that administers Vatican City, Archbishop Viganò asked in the letters to be allowed to continue cleaning up the Holy See’s financial affairs.  Instead, he was removed from his post and named the papal nuncio, or ambassador, to the United States.

This is the highest-profile court case in years to take place in a tribunal that has preserved the procedures of a 19th-century Italian penal code and handles only a few dozen cases a year, most of them insignificant.

The most interesting thing I got from reading this article is that Vatican law does not allow for plea bargains.  Does this seem odd to anyone else?  Is the Vatican not concerned with judicial economy?  Perhaps it is a non-issue for them since they only try a few insignificant cases a year.  Does requiring a court to independently verify facts before rendering a verdict insure justice for defendants or does it simply deplete Vatican resources unnecessarily?


SOURCE:  Pope’s Former Butler on Trial in Theft of Personal Papers


  1. It is difficult to imagine a court system without plea-bargaining. The federal court system in the United States, along with state courts, city courts, and even town and village courts are able to operate only because of the judicial efficiency created by plea-bargaining. This tribunal at the Vatican only handles a few dozen cases per year, and can thus afford (time-wise anyway) to hear all of its claims as full trials. At the same time, I feel like a person should still be able to plead guilty to a crime. Why make a man like Gabriele, who admits to these current crimes, sit through a fact-finding trial? The answer is because this tribunal has preserved the procedures of the 19th century Italian penal code.

    To answer Joe’s question, I think this is a waste of the Vatican’s time and resources, and that this dated process does little more than cause unnecessary embarrassment for defendants who want to admit to their crimes. In the present case, Gabriele is hoping for a pardon from the Pope. If you ask me, all alliteration aside, when a man is caught stealing from the Pope, a legal pardon should be the least of his concerns.

  2. UPDATE: The Pope’s ex-butler was sentenced today to 18 months in prison for the theft of thousands of Vatican documents, including some of Pope Benedict’s private papers and letters alleging corruption within the church. Defense counsel, Cristiana Arru, does not plan to appeal the judgment because she believes it is “just.” Now that there is a sentence, the pope will evaluate whether to pardon Gabriele. There is a concrete and real possibility of his forgiveness, but it will be up to the Pope to decide if and when to grant the pardon. Interestingly, Gabriele was actually sentenced to the three years in prison requested by the prosecution, but this was reduced to 18 months due to Gabriele’s stated belief that he was acting in good faith, his clean record, and his admission of guilt. There have been many questions regarding other people who may have been involved in this crime, however, to date, there has been no concrete evidence that Gabriele had any accomplices.

  3. While I agree it does seem strange not to have a plea bargaining system I can understand why. The number of cases handled each year is insignificant allowing for each case to be fully disposed. I think it is more interesting that an independent court is required to verify their findings. Why is that necessary? If the independent court is going to apply the same laws what is the purpose? Is it because of the Church’s history of persecution? Both of these rules are interesting, however I do not think they are needed anymore. I would imagine these rules can be amended but why haven’t they? Like Patrick said, there is no reason for Gabriele to go through a full trial so why not amend the laws. Although a plea bargaining system is not necessary why not have it? The government would only have to accept the plea bargains they wanted to but in the clear cases they could expedite sentencing.

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