VATICAN CITY – A Vatican judge on Monday ordered the pope's butler and a fellow lay employee to stand trial for the alleged pilfering of documents from Pope Benedict XVI's private apartment, in an embarrassing scandal that exposed power struggles and purported corruption at the Holy See's highest levels.
The indictment accused Paolo Gabriele, a butler arrested at the Vatican in May, of grand theft — a charge that could bring up to six years in jail, although the pope could pardon his once-trusted aide after any conviction.
Gabriele was also accused of taking a check for €100,000 (about $125,000) made out to Benedict and donated by a Spanish Catholic university from the papal quarters.
Gabriele's lawyer, Carlo Fusco, told The Associated Press that the check had "by chance" ended up in a pile of the pope's paperwork Gabriele had accumulated in his apartment. Fusco said his client "had never taken money or any other economic advantage" in his role as butler.
While the Vatican had insisted throughout the investigation that Gabriele, a 45-year-old married layman who lives with his family in Vatican City, was the only person under investigation, the indictment also orders trial for Claudio Sciarpelletti, a 48-year-old computer expert in the Secretariat of State office charged with aiding and abetting the butler.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters that a three-judge panel would try the two defendants together. No date was set for the trial, which will be open to reporters, but Lombardi said it would start at the very earliest in late September, after the court returns from summer break.
The Holy See has been on a defensive footing since documents alleging corruption and exposing power struggles began appearing in the Italian media in January. In May, the book "Sua Santita" (His Holiness) — by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi — was published containing dozens of documents from the pope's desk, including letters written to him.
Lombardi said Monday that magistrates had not taken on the wider, more serious issue revealed by the leaked documents — alleged corruption within the top ranks of the church. He said Vatican investigators would pursue other culprits, but sidestepped a question on whether a special panel of cardinals Benedict set up to deal with the scandal had made any inroads into the wider question of moral wrongdoing among those higher up. Benedict has reviewed the indictment, he said.
Meanwhile, Greg Burke, a U.S. television journalist recently hired by the Vatican as its senior communications adviser, told the AP that the Holy See didn't expect the ongoing judicial probe to turn up any mastermind.
The trial request and indictment basically lay out a script for what could be Gabriele's line of defense when he goes before the tribunal — a religiously inspired, misguided, would-be whistleblower.
Vatican Prosecutor Nicola Picardi, in seeking trial, quoted Gabriele as telling his interrogators after his arrest that he thought that the role of whistle-blower in the church "belongs to the Holy Spirit, whom I felt in some way had entered into me."
A psychological expert who examined Gabriele during the probe concluded that he was unsuited for the job, which went from dawn to dusk and included serving the pope meals, helping him get dressed, attending morning Mass with Benedict and other assignments. The indictment said the experts had concluded that Gabriele suffered from "a grave psychological unease characterized by restlessness, tension, anger and frustrations."
The indictment quoted Gabriele as telling investigators that he was "motivated by my deep faith and by the desire that in the church light is shed on everything."
Vatican prosecutor Nicola Picardi quoted the butler as telling his interrogators that "seeing evil and corruption everywhere in the Church ... I was sure that a shock, even a media one, would have been healthy to bring the Church back on the right track."
Lombardi indicated that "any possible pardon" from the pope for Gabriele, who has spent weeks in isolation in a Vatican security cell and now is under house arrest in Vatican City, would only come after the trial's end. "It's premature to speak of this now," he said.
Judge Piero Antonio Bonnet ruled that there was no evidence to indict Sciarpelletti — described in the indictment as an "acquaintance" of Gabriele in the tiny Vatican City — on a charge of revealing secrets and there was insufficient evidence for a charge of grand theft.
Sciarpelletti's office was searched hours after Gabriele's May 23 arrest, and the computer expert spent a night in a Vatican holding cell. He was quickly released when it appeared clear that his role wasn't a key one, Lombardi said.
Lombardi left the door open for more developments, saying the probe at this point was only "partial."
Gabriele was also found to be in possession of a rare, 16th-century edition of Virgil's "Aeneid." He had asked the pope's private secretary permission to bring it home so he could show it to his son's school professor.
AP video journalist Paolo Santalucia contributed to this report.