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Pope’s Butler to Cooperate in Vatican Scandal Inquiry

May 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Vatican scandal deepened Monday when the pope's butler, arrested for allegedly releasing confidential documents last week, said he will cooperate with a Vatican criminal investigation. Margaret Warner and the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen discuss suggestions that a cardinal may be responsible for disclosures.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a butler, a banker and a growing scandal at the Vatican.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: The cloud has been gathering over Saint Peter’s Square for months, ever since January, when Vatican documents began leaking, showing infighting over allegations of corruption and even descriptions of private papal meetings.

Then, late last week, the scandal, dubbed Vatileaks suddenly widened. The president of the Vatican Bank was ousted and the pope’s personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested for allegedly having confidential documents in his apartment.

Today, the butler’s lawyers said he will cooperate with the Vatican’s criminal investigation of the leaks — adding to the feverish speculation, new reports in Italian newspapers that a cardinal, still unidentified, may be at the center of the disclosures.

BRUNO BARTOLONI, Corriere Della Sera (through translator): It is obvious that the butler is just a pawn in this case. He is nothing but a man who was evidently dragged in by people who have a certain power. Today, it is difficult to establish who that is, from a cardinal to a group of bishops, someone who is fed up with what was going on around the pope and the central government of the church.

MARGARET WARNER: The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, dismissed those assertions.

REVEREND FEDERICO LOMBARDI, Vatican spokesman (through translator): I have to deny completely that there is any Italian cardinal under suspicion in this case, as some people have said in authoritative newspapers.

MARGARET WARNER: Pope Benedict XVI has not spoken publicly about the scandal. But apart from the criminal probe, the pope appointed three cardinals to investigate how and why the leaking occurred.

And to help us understand all this, we turn to John Allen, who covers the Vatican for The National Catholic Reporter. He’s based in Rome, but joins us tonight from Denver.

And, John, welcome back to the program.

OK, leaked documents, a butler arrested, insider — one insider gone, another top financial figure gone. What really is at the heart of this? What’s this about?

JOHN ALLEN, National Catholic Reporter: Well, hi, Margaret. Good to see you and happy Memorial Day.

Look, at one level, this is a story about a centuries-old institution that has always prized secrecy struggling to come to terms with the 21st century world in which it is just quite difficult often to keep things hidden. And so they’re seeing some of their most closely guarded secrets rolled out for full public view, things like documents concerning Vatican finances, internal policy disputes, even the pope’s private correspondence.

Now, related to that, this is also a story that very much shows us the human face of the Vatican, because whatever the Vatican’s spiritual claims, it is also a government. And like governments everywhere, there are sometimes power struggles. There are sometimes whistle-blowers. There are even sometimes managers who quite honestly struggle to make the trains run on time.

And it may well be that all of that is involved in this saga.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start with the butler, Paolo Gabriele.

Now, what does a papal butler do? How close is he to the pope? Would he have had access to all of these documents that were allegedly found in his apartment?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, Paolo Gabriele is a 46-year-old layman, Italian. He’s married with three children. His family — he and his family live in an apartment on Vatican grounds.

As the pope’s butler — and he was hired, by the way, for that position in 1998, so he began in service to John Paul II and then continued under Benedict XVI. He’s responsible for helping the pope with his clothes, for serving his meals, for attending to his other personal needs.

For example, in the twilight of the John Paul years, when the pope was using a cane, Gabriele was often the guy who would carry the cane for the pope and hand it to him when he needed it. And as such, he’s one of a very restricted number of people — we’re talking no more than a dozen — who would have regular, direct, daily, unfettered access to the papal apartments and to the pope himself.

So, the answer to your question, would he have access to the documents, the answer to that question is probably yes. I think where the doubt enters in some people’s minds, given the fact that Paolo Gabriele is not a policy official, it would have been unusual for anyone to see him in possession of these documents. And so the question is, over such a long arc of time — because this leak scandal really erupted in January — could he realistically have been taking these documents in and out of the papal apartment back to his own residence to photocopy them without ever being observed?

And that has sown some doubt about ultimately how responsible he may be.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, now, the documents themselves, the substance of the documents, fairly briefly, but is it fair to say that the Vatican’s finances are certainly a thread that connects a lot of these?

JOHN ALLEN: Yes, there has really been a tidal wave of leaked documents. And some of them have been almost self-parodying and fairly easy for the Vatican to shoot down, for example, an anonymous memorandum about an alleged plot to kill the pope that centered on a business trip an Italian cardinal take to Beijing.

I mean, Margaret, that almost smacks of the Borgias. And I don’t think too many people took it seriously. But certainly when it comes to the leaked documents about Vatican finances and in particular perhaps the operations of the Vatican Bank, they have raised serious questions about the effectiveness of the new transparency measures that Benedict XVI has called for, which comes at an awkward time for the Vatican, because it is right now trying to become certified on European white lists of countries that meet international standards in the fight against money-laundering and the financing of terrorism.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as you said, no one is quite sure who did this, but who would have motive for this leaking, that is, who — whom could the leaks be aimed at getting, if there is such a thing?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, that, of course, is the $64,000 question.

And, as yet, we have no solid answer to it. And so we now enter the realm of speculation. But the most popular theory would be that, ultimately, the aim here is to undercut the current cardinal secretary of state, an Italian cardinal by the name of Tarcisio Bertone. The Vatican has a sort of president-prime minister structure, in which the pope is the head of state, but the secretary of state is the head of government, effectively the prime minister.

And there are many inside and outside the Vatican who sort of have a beef with Cardinal Bertone, in some ways on policy grounds, in other ways of issues simply of competence, whether he serves the pope well in that role.

And so the leading theory here would be that the factions in the Vatican hostile to Bertone have been orchestrating these leaks to in effect execute a regime change.

MARGARET WARNER: We have less than a minute left. But in that time — and you talk to a lot of Vatican insiders. How concerned are Vatican officials you talk to that this is damaging the institution?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, publicly, they will say that, yes, this is painful and unfortunately, but it’s business as usual and full steam ahead.

Privately, I think they are concerned, at one level because of the damage to the Vatican’s external image. Another is the internal cost of this. The Vatican is an institution that runs on trust. And this scandal, quite honestly, has badly frayed that climate of trust.

MARGARET WARNER: And so where it goes from here?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, the Vatican has said the investigation is ongoing. It remains to be seen whether other suspects will be named.

In the meantime, the butler, Paolo Gabriele, is the object of an investigation which could end in a trial. If he is found guilty of a criminal offense under Vatican law, he could be sentenced to prison time, in which case the Vatican might well petition Italy, under its diplomatic agreements, to actually execute that sentence.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, thank you.

JOHN ALLEN: You bet.