“VatiLeaks” Trial Begins Today

Paolo Gabriele with Pope Benedict XVI

Today is the the first day of actual testimony in the the trial of the Pope’s former butler, part of the perplexing “VatiLeaks” case. An “iconic moment” will occur in a tiny Vatican courtroom this morning, if all goes according to schedule.

The Pope’s personal secretary for the past nine years (since 2003), Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, 56, will come face to face with Paolo Gabriele, 46, the “butler” of Pope Benedict XVI for six years, from 2006 until this spring.

Gaenswein is being summoned to give testimony in the trial of Gabriele, who is charged with betraying the Pope’s trust and stealing sensitive documents from his very desk, then turning them over to a journalist for publication, a crime for which, under the laws of the Vatican City State (remember, a separate country under international law) he could face as much as six years in prison (such a sentence would, however, be served in an Italian jail under the terms of Vatican-Italy agreements).

Gaenswein is a key witness against Gabriele.

The two were face to face once before. Four months ago, on May 21, after obtaining a copy of a recently published book by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi entitled His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Pope Benedict XVI, Gaenswein discovered in it excerpts of a document (related to a foundation named after the Pope) which had been on Gaenswein’s desk only, and nowhere else in the Vatican.

Gaenswein realized at that moment — it is said — that the document had to have been taken by someone inside the papal household itself.

He called the members of the household together: the Pope’s other secretary, Fr. Alfred Xuereb; the four Italian women “Memores Domini” (literally, “Rememberers of the Lord,” those who concentrate their lives on remembering the life and work of Christ, a group of consecrated lay people within the Communion and Liberation movement) who serve in the Vatican apartments and cook the Pope’s meals; Birgit Wansing; and Gabriele.

Msgr. Georg Gaenswein

There, in front of the others, Gaenswein accused Gabriele of having taken the document from his desk. Gabriele denied any responsibility.

In today’s hearing, judges will ask Gaenswein to reconstruct these events, to make clear that only “Paoletto” (“little Paul,” the Pope’s nickname for Paolo Gabriele) could have had at least these two of the documents that were published by Nuzzi.

By May 23, Gabriele was under arrest. He was held through June and July, then allowed to return to his home in Vatican City, not far from the St. Anne’s Gate, where he lives with his wife and three children, pending trial.

Now the trial is beginning, and today will be the first testimony, and Gaenswein will be among the handful of witnesses called.

The Role of the Secretary

The Pope, as supreme teacher and ruler of the universal Church, has final and, indeed, infallible authority (as Vatican I taught) — when speaking “ex cathedra” — over Church doctrine, and is also the supreme legislator of the Church.

This authority and, in a manner of speaking, power, invested in one man, means that the role of those close to the Pope, protecting him from overwork and from matters that might otherwise consume too much of his precious time, becomes of very great importance, in practical, administrative terms.

And so the papal personal secretary becomes the “gate-keeper” of the Pope. This, of course, may (and does) cause friction.

For example, a person who wishes to speak directly with the Pope and finds it difficult (or impossible) to have an audience or to get a message directly to the Holy Father, may feel considerable frustration.

One of the many mysteries in this case is that Gabriele — who was in daily personal contact with Pope Benedict — has claimed that he felt he was acting out of “love for the Church, and the Holy Father,” by copying or stealing the documents that Nuzzi published.

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Dr. Robert Moynihan

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Dr. Robert Moynihan is an American and veteran Vatican journalist with knowledge of five languages. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican magazine.

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