VATICAN CITY — The first major criminal trial at the Vatican in modern times, the hearing of Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict XVI’s former valet, predictably drew worldwide attention.
Opening up the Vatican and papal apartments to unprecedented close inspection was going to attract extensive media coverage. And rightly so.
Gabriele was found guilty Oct. 6 of aggravated theft of confidential documents from the papal apartments and jailed for 18 months.
Yet, despite many of the major news agencies reporting on it, occasionally with a predictable slant against the Church, and with some TV news reports trying to portray the trial like a chapter from a Dan Brown novel, the coverage was generally fair, reliable and accurate.
Much credit for this goes to the Vatican itself. In August, the Holy See Press Office issued a lengthy indictment of Gabriele containing 35 pages of highly detailed information gathered by prosecutors. The Vatican stressed this was to show its desire to act transparently, as well as to respect the judgment and autonomy of the magistrates.
The Vatican also made clear that the report of a commission of cardinals investigating the theft and the corruption allegations would not be published, so as to not interfere with the work of the court.
Indeed, the trial judge rejected evidence of the commission for the same reason. His focus was solely on Gabriele and whether he was guilty or innocent of the charges of theft, rather than to judge the corruption allegations contained in the leaked documents.
In a further move toward greater transparency, the Vatican allowed eight selected journalists (six regular reporters and two who normally cover the Vatican) to observe the proceedings and report back to colleagues after each hearing. Alas, a few reporters sent to cover the trial failed to show the same respect to the Vatican, breaking embargoes and an agreement not to Tweet disclosures until 15 minutes after the post-hearing press conferences were over.
Benedict Delegated Authority
But that aside, few, if any, believe Gabriele received an unfair hearing, and no one is seriously claiming a miscarriage of justice. Instead, some are describing the process as exemplary, showing how the Pope, despite having supreme authority, allowed a true separation of powers between the executive and judiciary, each exercising its own power with maximum autonomy.
“He’s showing the importance of the rule of law and how due process should be practiced throughout the world,” said one Rome priest close to the Vatican. “As with his efforts to safeguard minors from potential abuse and to clean up the Vatican’s finances, the Pope is using the same system of transparency and fairness across the board.”
In particular, although Benedict will probably pardon Gabriele (Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said a papal pardon was now “very concrete and very likely”), he has waited until the end of the trial to allow justice to take its course.
Praise has also been heaped on the code of law used in the trial. The Vatican bases its proceedings largely on the Zanardelli Code, a penal code in force in the kingdom of Italy up until Mussolini came to power in 1930. The law is especially noted for the way it safeguards the rights of the accused (in contrast to Mussolini’s code that followed, which put the power of the state above the individual). It also requires a guilty verdict from the presiding judge, even though the accused may have confessed to the crime, as Gabriele did in this case, albeit partially. The code of law has been lauded by the lawyer representing Claudio Sciarpelletti, accused of aiding and abetting Gabriele. Under the legal system, Sciarpelletti is to be tried separately at the end of the month.
One area where the Vatican appeared to have made mistakes concerned Gabriele’s claims of being mistreated in custody. He told the court he was forced to spend 15-20 hours a day in a cell so small he couldn’t “even stretch his arms” and that a light was left on 24 hours a day, making him feel under “psychological pressure.”
But in response, a Vatican judge immediately opened an investigation into Gabriele’s allegations, leading to an explanation from the Vatican Police. The light was left on, they said, to guarantee Gabriele’s own security, and the cell “was in line with other countries’ standards for similar situations.” The guards even gave him a sleep mask to block out the light, and he had a telephone with direct access to the commandant.
Again, one could argue that the Vatican handled the situation well, especially for a state not used to dealing with a major crime such as this. Gabriele is also suspected of being advised by his lawyer to put anything he could before the court in a bid for a lighter sentence.
Another positive aspect of the trial was its efficiency. Proceedings lasted just one week; some have argued this was to avoid further embarrassment and to have it concluded before the beginning of the important Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization from around the world, which began at the Vatican Oct. 7. That may be so, but again, no one is seriously asserting that justice wasn’t served.
As for allegations of corruption inside the Vatican itself, and possible accomplices to Gabriele, this is separate to last week’s trial, which dealt with the aggravated theft charges against him. Uncovering these allegations is primarily the responsibility of the Commission of Cardinals and the Vatican’s chief prosecutor, Nicola Picardi. Both are continuing with their investigations.
Indeed, the center of the media’s coverage should now really be on them and the upcoming Sciarpelletti trial to ensure that the Vatican deals with some serious allegations of malpractice. This may or may not involve a small number of senior Curial officials, as well as other staff complicit in the leaks.
One possible focus could be the surprise departure Oct. 6 of Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's “attorney general,” who has done much to change the cover-up mentality in the Church regarding clerical abuse cases. Some believe that, as another key reformer and close ally of the Pope, he was maneuvered out of the way. The Maltese priest has been appointed an auxiliary bishop in Malta, and so far no one has been named to replace him.
But others argue this is mere speculation and stress that Msgr. Scicluna was a long-serving Vatican official and may soon replace Malta’s current archbishop, who is reportedly unwell. Father Lombardi, who was asked for clarification, has yet to comment on the appointment.
The hope is that, if necessary, this will be fully examined by the continuing Vatican investigations, along with other cases, and that these inquiries and the upcoming trial will be as transparent and fair as the Gabriele hearing.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.