Q&A on the Vatican's 'Butler Did It' Story

By John L. Allen Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
May 27, 2012

Given intense interest in the arrest of a papal butler charged with being at least one of the moles responsible for the Vatican leaks scandal, I'll list below the five most common questions I've fielded, along with my best stab at a response.

1. Who is this guy?

Paolo Gabriele is a 46-year-old Italian layman, with a wife and three children, who's worked in the papal apartment since 1998. Gabriele was hired by the personal secretary of Pope John Paul II, Stanislaw Dziwisz, today the cardinal of Krakow. Gabriele's role was mostly to see to the pope's clothing, to serve his meals, and to be on hand for other personal needs. He performed the same functions for John Paul and Benedict when they were on the road, travelling on the papal plane.

As such, Gabriele was one of just a handful of people who enjoy direct daily access to the pope, along with Benedict's two priest-secretaries and the four consecrated lay women belonging to the Memores Domini community who do most of the cooking and cleaning. Benedict XVI, who puts great emphasis on fostering a family spirit among his closest aides, would doubtless see Gabriele as a member of his personal family.

Gabriele, known around the Vatican as "Paoletto" ("little Paul"), has the reputation of being a devout and fairly simple person, not someone who would ordinarily be suspected of involvement in high intrigue.

2. What's the evidence against him?

Officials familiar with the case say it's almost a slam-dunk, given that a search of Gabriele's Vatican apartment turned up stacks of confidential documents along with equipment for making reproductions. Because the Vatican doesn't have a jail, Gabriele has been detained in one of three secure rooms in the offices of the Vatican gendarmes, a space more often used to accommodate pick-pockets arrested for fleecing the large crowds of tourists on Vatican grounds before they're turned over to Italian authorities.

When the Vatican leaks scandal first erupted earlier this year, at least three different Vatican inquests didn't make much headway. This week, however, the Italian journalist who first rolled out several of the leaks on his prime-time TV show, Gianluigi Nuzzi, published a book called His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, collecting the previously leaked documents and adding new ones. Among the additions were apparently some documents that had never left the papal apartment, allowing investigators to narrow their search.

In terms of where things go from here, an investigation by a Vatican judge is currently on-going, which will end either in a decision to dismiss the charges against Gabriele or to bind him over for trial. Although initial news reports suggested that Gabriele might be charged with the crime of illegal possession of documents of a head of state, which under Vatican law carries a prison term of 30 years, the Vatican spokesperson said on Saturday that so far the plan is only to charge him with "aggravated theft."

If Gabriele is eventually convicted, the Vatican would likely petition Italy to enforce any prison sentence, under diplomatic agreements that envision enforcement of one another's laws.

For the record, some skeptics are saying that the evidence against Gabriele may be a little too strong. Given that everyone in the Vatican has known for some time that a ferocious mole-hunt was underway, some wonder how likely it is that the "deep throat" would actually keep such incriminating material in his own Vatican apartment. Under this hypothesis, there may be some innocent explanation for how the documents and equipment got into Gabriele's apartment for instance, that he was holding it for someone else.

3. If Gabriele did it, what were his motives?

The answer, for now, is that we simply don't know. So far, three basic possibilities have emerged.

The "whistle blower" theory: In his now #1 best-selling book in Italy, Nuzzi referred to his source under the code name "Maria," and depicted the person as motivated by a conviction that too many secrets had been amassed that needed to be brought into the open. So far, Nuzzi has not commented on whether or not Gabriele was that source, saying only that the individual worked "inside the Vatican."

The "payoff" theory: Some have speculated that whoever is behind the Vatican leaks scandal was getting paid for providing the documents, either by news outlets or by someone else whose interests were served by the leaks. Most people who know Gabriele, however, say there's little evidence that he's had any sudden infusion of cash, and they also say he seemed an unlikely candidate to take payola.

The "put up to it" theory: Many observers believe that if Gabriele was the source of the leaked documents, he's unlikely to have acted on his own. In part, that's because some of the leaks seemed timed to inflict maximum damage, and it's not clear that a simple assistant in the papal household would have such a sophisticated grasp of Vatican politics. According to this theory, someone higher up the food chain is the real director of the drama.

4. If this is really a plot, who's the target?

Since the eruption of the leaks scandal in January, many observers have suspected that the ultimate aim is to undercut the Vatican's Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. The Vatican has a president/prime minister structure, with the pope as the head of state and the secretary of state as the head of government. Bertone, a longtime friend and aide to Benedict XVI, has occupied that "prime minister" position since September 2006.

In terms of why Bertone would be targeted, once again there are three main theories.

The "power politics" theory: In Italian ecclesiastical circles, the job of secretary of state is often considered the ultimate prize more sought-after, in some cases, than the papacy itself. According to this theory, the aim would be to sufficiently weaken Bertone that Benedict would feel compelled to remove him, opening the door for someone else to ascend.

The "payback" theory: Some believe that if there's indeed a campaign against Bertone, its roots are in some contentious policy choice perhaps the way he's replaced the Italian bishops' conference as the primary interlocutor with the Italian government, perhaps his attempted take-over of a major Italian Catholic hospital and university system, perhaps something else.

The "lost confidence" theory: According to this view, elements in the Vatican frustrated with what they perceive as a pattern of mismanagement under Bertone have lost confidence in him, and believe that the only exit strategy is to force him out. Elements of that supposed pattern, according to this theory, would be the holocaust-denying bishop affair of 2009, the scandals surrounding Italian journalist Dino Boffo in 2010, the handling of the sexual abuse crisis, and various other crises which have erupted on Bertone's watch.

5. How bad is all this for the Vatican?

With respect to Gabriele, it's too early to say how damaging his arrest may be for the Vatican, because we don't yet know if others were involved or what his motives were. If Gabriele acted alone, and for relatively straight-forward reasons, than the worst of it may be over.

As far as the broader leaks scandal, it's seriously damaging to the Vatican for at least three reasons.

In the outside world: The eruption of yet another scandal makes it virtually impossible to tell any other story that the Vatican might like to focus on the suffering of Christian martyrs around the world, for instance, or Benedict's call for a "New Evangelization." In particular, the Vatican currently is hoping to be included on the "white list" of countries that comply with international norms in the fight against money-laundering and the financing of terrorism. The release of documents alleging corruption and cronyism in Vatican finances, even if spokespersons insist they're exaggerated or inaccurate, doesn't help make that case.

In the church: Perceptions of a crisis of governance in the Vatican reduce confidence across the system, so it becomes harder for the Vatican to convince bishops and other church leaders to follow their lead. Some might see that as a contribution to decentralization, but it also makes it more difficult for the Vatican to get the church moving in the same direction, or to exercise behind-the-scenes influence in a thorny local situation. Over time, it could also affect the Vatican's ability to generate resources or to attract quality personnel.

In the Vatican itself: The Vatican is an institution that runs on trust. Personal relationships tend to drive how things get done, as opposed to flow charts or systems theory. The leaks scandal has poisoned the air, making it more difficult for Vatican personnel to know who they can really trust. If a member of the pope's own household could be engaged in skullduggery, many may wonder if there's anyone truly above suspicion.


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