But even those cases, both in the 17th century, did not involve a breach of trust by a papal aide – the issue at the core of tomorrow’s trial of papal butler Paolo Gabriele for stealing and leaking the pontiff’s personal papers.
One of the worst crises in Pope Benedict’s papacy will play out in a small Vatican tribunal, where a three-judge panel will decide the fate of the 46-year-old Gabriele, whom the pope used to call “Paoletto” (little Paul) and who is now described in Vatican documents as “the defendant”.
The case will put the inner workings of the tiny Vatican, the world’s smallest state, in the type of media spotlight it usually strives to avoid.
The man who served Pope Benedict his meals and helped him dress is charged with aggravated theft for leaking private papers in a self-styled attempt to clean up what he saw as evil and corruption in the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church.
The documents pointed to a power struggle at the Church’s highest levels. Gabriele, who said he saw himself as a whistle-blowing “agent of the Holy Spirit”, faces up to four years in jail if convicted, which is widely expected to be the outcome of the case because he has confessed.
Since the Vatican is a monarchy where the Pope reigns supreme, the trial will start when the president of the tribunal, standing in front of a crucifix, says: “In the name of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI…”
The trial procedures will be based on a 19th century Italian penal code.
The wood-panelled courtroom, which can hold only several dozen people and has an ornate papal crest at the centre of its ceiling, is the venue for about 30 trials a year, usually for petty crimes such as theft in St Peter’s Square, according to Professor Giovanni Giacobbe, an expert on Vatican law. Gabriele, a father of three living a simple but comfortable life in the city-state, told investigators after his arrest in May that he believed a shock “could be a healthy thing to bring the Church back on the right track”.
The trusted manservant said he wanted to help root out the corruption, “because the Pope was not sufficiently informed”, according to details made public when Gabriele was indicted in August.
“The Pope cannot tell the judge what verdict to reach, but he can intervene at any time if he wants to, and he can also grant a pardon,” Giacobbe said.
Since the papal state has no prison, Gabriele would serve time in an Italian jail if he is convicted and the Pope does not pardon him.
Gabriele’s arrest capped nearly five months of intrigue and suspense as a string of documents and private letters found their way into the Italian media.
The Vatican has described the revelations as a “brutal” attack on the Pope. Benedict himself has merely alluded to personal pain and criticised a media portrayal of the Vatican that “does not correspond to reality”.
Gabriele will go on trial alongside Claudio Sciarpelletti, a Vatican computer expert who is charged with aiding and abetting a crime. Sciarpelletti faces up to one year in jail if found guilty.