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Vatican says the 'butler did it,' orders trial

Gregorio Borgia / AP

Clouds pass over St. Peter's square at the Vatican on Monday.

ROME – It doesn't get more symbolic than this: dark clouds hung over the Vatican on Monday morning after months of glorious sunshine, just as its spokesman announced the outcome of an investigation into one of the biggest conspiracies to emerge from the Holy See in years.

As explained in a 35-page document issued by the Vatican, a judge charged Pope Benedict XVI's former butler with "aggravated theft" for allegedly stealing and leaking private documents from the pope's apartment to the Italian media.

Paolo Gabriele must now stand trial in one of the biggest conspiracies to hit the Vatican in years.

The documents purporting to contain damaging details of alleged corruption and power struggles among the Church's hierarchy provide a rare peek through the keyhole of the secretive Vatican medieval walls.


'Vatileaks'
The scandal, branded "Vatileaks," started in January after Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi revealed for the first time one of the documents in his television program, "The Untouchables," on the Italian channel La7.

Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters file

The Pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, bottom left, arrives with Pope Benedict XVI at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican in a file photo from May 23, 2012.

In a private letter sent by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano to his superiors, including the pope, he appeared to expose a web of corruption, nepotism and cronyism in the awarding of contracts for the maintenance of the tiny city-state's gardens, buildings, streets, museums and other infrastructure. Vigano complained that much of the work was often given to the same companies at double the cost when compared to what they charged outside the Vatican.

Among the many expenses a medieval state like the Vatican, the cradle of Christianity, needs to maintain its splendor, perhaps the most typical one is the cost of the nativity scene, which adorns St. Peter's Square every Christmas. In one of the leaked letters, Vigano complained that it cost almost $700,000 to put on in 2009, and managed to almost halve its cost the following year.

Despite the cost-saving efforts by Vigano, the archbishop was soon deposed from his post and sent to Washington as a "Nuncio," the Vatican equivalent of an ambassador. What was meant to be a promotion, Vigano denounced as a smear campaign against him by members of the Vatican hierarchy, whom he believed were unhappy about his push for transparency in the church's complex financial structure.

"Holy Father, my transfer right now would provoke much disorientation and discouragement in those who have believed it was possible to clean up so many situations of corruption and abuse of power that have been rooted in the management of so many departments," Vigano wrote to the pope on March 27, 2011, according to the leaked documents.

After the program aired, the hunt for the whistleblower – colorfully called the "crow" (Italian for mole) – was on. In Nuzzi's book he or she was called, almost heretically, "Mary."

The Vatican gendarmerie, the Holy See's "police" force, quickly began searching for clues.

Then, as if out of an Agatha Christie novel, the predictable outcome: the butler did it.

The butler did it
On May 23, the Vatican gendarmerie arrested Paolo Gabriele, the pope's personal assistant. He was one of the very few people to have access to the pope's private chambers and was caught red-handed when a stash of secret documents was found in his apartment.

Andreas Solaro / AFP - Getty Images

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi speaks at a press conference about the charges on Monday.

In his possession, authorities also found some presents sent to the pope, including a check for a $130,000, a gold nugget and a rare 16th century book. He was held for 53 days in a Vatican cell before being put under house arrest.

The decision to order Gabriele to stand trial on charges of aggravated theft for leaking the documents was widely expected. But if the butler did it, was he part of a wider whistleblowing operation aimed at shaking up the Vatican hierarchy as some have suggested?

On Monday, the Vatican revealed that at least one other arrest was made during the investigation. Claudio Sciarpelletti, a layman Vatican IT employee, was also ordered to stand trial, but on lesser charges of aiding and abetting a crime.

Big crime in a small country
Officially, the Vatican is one of the countries with the highest crime rate per capita in the world. The surprising statistic is skewed by the fact that, despite there being only 800 residents, there's an abundance of purse-snatchers from abroad (meaning Italy, which is just across the fences of St. Peter's Square). Its sole judge spends a lot of time dealing with mostly petty crimes.

The last serious crime the court had to deal with was the 1998 murder of a Swiss Guard commander and his wife by a young Swiss Guard, who later took his own life.

The trial for the conspiracy that has shaken the Vatican at the top of its hierarchy will not take place until October at the earliest. If Gabriele is found guilty, he risks up to six years in prison.

Unless, of course, the pope can find it in his heart to forgive - and pardon him.

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