The trial of Paolo Gabriele, the Pope’s former valet, last week found guilty of aggravated theft of confidential documents from the papal apartments, predictably drew worldwide attention.
As the first major criminal trial at the Vatican in modern times, and one that opened up the Vatican and papal apartments to unprecedented scrutiny, it was always going to attract extensive media coverage, and rightly so.
And although many of the major news agencies reported with their usual negative slant towards the Church, the reporting was generally fair, reliable and accurate. Some reporters would hype it to the level of a Da Vinci Code plot, questioning the impartiality of the court, but such claims didn’t carry.
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 show transparency, as well as to respect the judgement 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made clear that the report of a commission of cardinals investigating the theft and the corruption allegations would not be published so as to not interfere with the work of the court.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.
But that aside, few if any believe Gabriele received an unfair hearing, and no one is seriously claiming a miscarriage of justice, as a few commenters on blogs have argued. 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 practised 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 Pope Benedict is likely to pardon Gabriele, 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 the Mussolini code that followed that 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 to 20 days 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.” 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 throw all he had at the court in a bid for a lighter sentence.
Another positive aspect of the trial was its efficiency. Proceedings lasted just one week and some have argued this was to avoid further embarrassment, and to have it concluded before the beginning of an important Synod of Bishops from around the world which began at the Vatican on Sunday. That may be so, but again, no one is seriously asserting that justice wasn’t served.
As for the revelation of corruption inside the Vatican itself, and possible accomplices to Gabriele, this is separate to last week’s trial that dealt with the aggravated theft charges against Gabriele. Uncovering these allegations is primarily the responsibility of the commission of cardinals and the Vatican’s chief prosecutor, Nicola Picardi. Both Picardi and the commission are continuing with their investigations.
Indeed, the centre of the media’s coverage should now really be on them, and the upcoming Sciarpelletti trial, to ensure that the Vatican is held to account for 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.
The hope is that the Vatican will be as transparent with those investigations and proceedings as it was with the Gabriele trial.
Edward Pentin is a journalist based in Rome.