Vatican prosecutor interrogates papal butler

VATICAN CITY Tue Jun 5, 2012 12:23pm EDT

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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - A prosecutor began interrogating Pope Benedict's butler on Tuesday to decide if he should stand trial in what would be one of the most sensational court cases ever in the Vatican.

Prosecutor Piero Antonio Bonnet questioned Paolo Gabriele in the presence of his two lawyers and Nicola Piccardi, another Vatican judicial official known as the "promoter of justice".

Bonnet must now decide whether there is enough evidence to order Gabriele, who was arrested on May 23 after Vatican police found a large number of confidential papal documents in his Vatican apartment, to stand trial on charges of aggravated theft.

Gabriele, 46, who has dual Vatican and Italian citizenship, was arrested as part of a Vatican investigation into what is known as the "Vatileaks" scandal, in which sensitive papal documents were leaked to Italian media.

Many Vatican insiders believe the butler, who served the pope his meals, helped him dress and rode in the front seat of the popemobile, could not have acted alone and may be a pawn in a much wider power struggle between cardinals.

The leaks scandal began in January and came to a head last month when, in the space of a few days, the head of the Vatican bank was abruptly dismissed, Gabriele was arrested and a book containing a trove of private Vatican correspondence was published.

The leaked documents allege corruption in the Vatican's business dealings with Italian companies, which were paid inflated prices for work in the Vatican, rivalries among cardinals and clashes over the management of the Vatican's bank, the IOR.

Gabriele could be held for up to 100 days in pre-trial custody, said Vatican judge Paolo Papanti Pelletier, who is not involved in the leaks case at this stage.

Aggravated theft carries a jail sentence of up to six years, but other offences, such as revealing state secrets, could be added to the list of charges during the investigation, the judge told reporters.

Vatican investigators and a commission of cardinals have been hunting for other informants, but spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Gabriele remained the only person under investigation so far.

BUTLER NO "DOUBLE AGENT"

Lombardi denied as groundless a report in an Italian newspaper that suggested Gabriele had worked for months as a "double agent" to help the Vatican police find other leakers.

Because the Vatican has no jail, Gabriele is being held in one of the city-state's four "safe rooms" in its police station.

Pelletier said the room measures around four meters (yards) square, and has a small table, a window, a crucifix on the wall and its own bathroom.

Gabriele has limited access to newspapers and other reading material but no television. He has been taken to hear Mass in a Vatican church several times since his arrest, and has not been handcuffed during the service.

The investigation will be secret to protect the rights of the defendant and others, but any trial would be open to the public, though the rarely used Vatican courtroom is small, Pelletier said.

In a sign that the scandal is leaving deep marks on Benedict's papacy, the pope's right-hand man, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, took the unusual step of giving a television interview on Monday in which he called the leaks a "ferocious and targeted" attack on the pope and the Church.

A day earlier, an Italian newspaper published new documents showing Gabriele was not the only person in possession of confidential Vatican correspondence, indicating that the scandal could spread further.

"I am not surprised that more documents are coming out," Lombardi told reporters, saying the leakers wanted to "keep the tension high".

(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Philip Pullella and Tim Pearce)

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