The Vatican Scandals: What Did the Pope's Butler Know?

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Eric Vandeville / ABACAPRESS

Pope Benedict XVI's butler Paolo Gabriele (left) with the pope in the private library at the Vatican on October 8, 2010.

The most amazing fact to be revealed during the scandals roiling the Vatican in recent weeks is the extent to which things have been revealed at all. The normally secretive institution has been rocked by a series of damaging disclosures, giving the impression that it has lost control of its public image.

The Holy See's travails became clearly evident on May 17, with the publication of a book, Your Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, in which the Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi reproduced dozens of leaked letters, memos and cables, many of them from within the office of the Pope. Then came the ouster of the head of the Vatican Bank, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, who on Thursday received a vote of no confidence from the bank's overseers, in part because he was suspected of passing on confidential documents. Finally, there was the arrest the next day of one of the men closest to the pontiff, his personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, who was caught with sensitive papers in his possession. "Everything has come out in an extremely violent way from the point of view of form," says Sandro Magister, editor of the Rome-based website "Chiesa" (Italian for church). "And it happens in the full light of the sun."

As with troubled waters, the chaos on display hints at happenings deep beneath the surface. In his book, Nuzzi describes the way his informants — aggregated into a composite he calls "Maria" — sought him out, in order to expose what they saw as corruption and mismanagement. "These people are small gears in the big machine that is the Vatican," Nuzzi told TIME. "And they're tired of the dust." The documents include letters from high-profile Italian businessmen and media personalities, with bank checks attached, inquiring after favors or meetings with the pope. Others are warnings of nepotism and corruption from a high-level Vatican official in charge of financial reforms, who was later transferred. Many Vatican watchers have speculated that the drama is the fall out of a struggle for power between Pope Benedict XVI's second-in-command, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and rival cardinals and the Vatican's veteran diplomatic staff, which has resented him since his arrival. "Bertone is effectively under fire," says Magister. "If the government of the church is in such disastrous condition, then it's clear that the head of the state needs to answer for these."

It's not clear to what extent the ouster of the president of the Vatican bank is connected with the flood of leaks. But a memo addressed to Tedeschi and written by Carl Anderson, head of U.S.-based the Knights of Columbus and a member of the board that unanimously voted for him to be fired, lays out the motivations for his dismissal. Among the reasons: "Failure to carry out basic duties," "Progressively erratic personnel [sic] behavior," and "Failure to provide any formal explanation for the dissemination of documents last known to be in the president's possession." Anderson declined to be interviewed, but through a spokesperson provided a link to the memo. "I can't remember a declaration so harsh of somebody so high, and it's been made public," says Andrea Tornielli of the website Vatican Insider. "It's something without precedent. It's definitely a sign that there are internal battles, strong ones and at very high level. Otherwise there's no explanation."

If the arrest by Vatican gendarmes of Gabriele, the Pope's butler, the following day was an effort to bring the situation under control, it backfired badly.Gabriele, 46, a layman with a wife and three children, was known around the Vatican as "Paoletto," meaning "little Paul." Described by those who know him as shy and a devout Catholic, he began his career at the Vatican as a janitor, and worked for a while as part of the household of Pope John Paul II. As Butler to Benedict, Gabriele is one of the few people who has regular contact with the pope and unrestricted access to his offices and apartments, the first to greet the pontiff in the morning and the last to say goodnight. He is said to be grief-stricken since his arrest, spending much of his time in prayer. At the moment, he as only been accused of "aggravated theft," but should he be charged with illegal possession of documents of a head of state, he could face as much as 30 years in prison.

The fact that one of the closest people to the Pope — the man who served the pontiff breakfast and held his umbrella when it rained — was being held in a cell in the Vatican sent the Italian press into a frenzy, with papers reporting that a cardinal was also under suspicion. Many have argued that it's unlikely that Gabriele is the sole person behind the leaking, that he must have been working with others, perhaps holding the documents for somebody higher up. The Vatican, while acknowledging that the investigation is continuing, denied that a Cardinal was involved. Nuzzi, who otherwise hasn't commented on the identity of his sources, backed up the denials — at least by saying that a prince of the church was not among his informants. "I've never known a cardinal in my life," he told TIME. With Gabriele having agreed to cooperate with Vatican investigators, according to one of his lawyers, the one thing for sure is that there will be more revelations to come.