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Trial of pope's butler starts with setback for defence

Pope Benedict's former butler Paolo Gabriele (R), accused of stealing and leaking the pontiff's personal papers, sits at the start of the trial at the Vatican September 29, 2012. REUTERS

VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict's butler, accused of using his access to the pope to steal papers that he thought would expose Vatican corruption, suffered a blow on the first day of his Trial when judges refused to admit evidence from the Church's own investigation.

Gabriele' s arrest in May, after police found confidential documents in his apartment inside the Vatican, not only threw a spotlight on allegations of malpractice but also pointed to a power struggle at the highest levels of the Church.

The 46-year-old Paolo Gabriele looked pale at his first public appearance since May, smiling as he chatted with his lawyer but often staring straight into space during a hearing that lasted just under two and a half hours.

Gabriele's lawyer, Cristiana Arru, had asked the court to allow as evidence the results of a separate investigation by a commission of cardinals who questioned a number of Vatican employees about the leaks of the documents to Italian media.

But the chief judge, sitting before a crucifix, rejected the request, saying the commission had been set up by the pope, and so its findings would be reserved for him.

Instead, Trial evidence will be based solely on the results of an investigation that was carried out by a Vatican prosecutor and Vatican police.

The court also decided to split off the case of Claudio Sciarpelletti, a Vatican computer expert charged with aiding and abetting Gabriele. Sciarpelletti, who was not present in court, will be tried separately.

According to an indictment last August, Gabriele told investigators he had acted because he saw "evil and corruption everywhere in the Church" and wanted to help root it out "because the pope was not sufficiently informed".

The first session was attended by eight Vatican police witnesses. The other four witnesses, including the pope's private secretary Monsignor Georg Ganswein, were not present but are expected to give evidence next week.

Gabriele, an unassuming man who served the pope his meals and helped him dress, is expected to testify when the Trial resumes on Tuesday.

Chief judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre, presiding over the tiny wood-panelled courtroom with a papal emblem on the ceiling, said he hoped to wind up the proceedings next week.

The self-styled whistle-blower, who wore a smart light grey suit and light grey tie, could be jailed for four years.

Domenico Giani, the head of the Vatican police force, told the court that 82 boxes of evidence had been seized in Gabriele's apartments in the Vatican and in the papal summer residence south of Rome.

Gabriele, who has said he saw himself as an "agent of the Holy Spirit", is widely expected to be found guilty because he has confessed.

"He has done harm by leaking this information because there will always be somebody who will take advantage of these things to denigrate the Church," said Rome resident Sergio Caldari in Saint Peter's Square.

Another local onlooker, Giovanni Maisto, said he was hopeful that the Trial, which is based on a 19th-century Italian penal code, could mark "a new dimension of openness and transparency" in the Church's affairs.

Gabriele, a father of three who lived a simple but comfortable life in the city-state, told investigators after his arrest that he believed a shock "could be a healthy thing to bring the Church back on the right track".

His capture capped nearly five months of intrigue and suspense after a string of documents and private letters found their way into the Italian media.

The most notorious of the letters were written to the pope by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, currently the Vatican's ambassador to Washington, who was deputy governor of the Vatican City at the time.

In one, Vigano complains that when he took office in 2009, he discovered corruption, nepotism and cronyism linked to the awarding of contracts to outside companies at inflated prices.

Vigano later wrote to the pope about a smear campaign against him by other Vatican officials who were upset that he had taken drastic steps to clean up the purchasing procedures.

Despite begging not to be moved away, Vigano was later transferred to Washington by Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, effectively the Vatican's prime minister.

Since the papal state has no prison, Gabriele would serve time in an Italian jail, though the pope is widely expected to pardon him.

 

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