VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - They are the pope’s shadow, his bodyguards both within the borders of the Vatican and during trips abroad. They are the police of the world’s smallest state.
But while the Vatican’s gendarmes are trained to protect Benedict XVI from external threats, this time they are hunting people who may be hiding within his inner circle.
Together with other arcane institutions of the ancient Vatican state, they are trying to track down who is behind a leak of the pope’s secret papers in a scandal that has shaken the papacy after the arrest of his butler.
The prosecution will be led by the “Promotor of Justice,” Nicola Picardi, who like other top officials in the Vatican’s judiciary is named by the pope and exercises his powers on the pontiff’s behalf.
But the most important investigating authority is a commission of three powerful cardinals in their 80s that was appointed in March, when the Vatican opened an extremely rare criminal probe into the case.
“These are tragic days,” Domenico Giani, the head of the Vatican Gendarmerie, said in his only public comment on the case.
It was Giani who arrested Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, last week on charges of stealing the pontiff’s personal documents.
The Vatican said Gabriele, who had access to the pope’s private apartment, had been found in possession of a large number of confidential documents.
Since then, the 46-year-old has been detained in one of the Vatican’s three “safe rooms” at the gendarmerie barracks. He has been visited by his lawyers and wife and been allowed to attend Mass.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi says Gabriele will be formally interrogated by the Promotor of Justice and an examining judge either at the end of this week or next.
According to Vatican experts, his detention could last as long as the investigation, although Lombardi has indicated prosecutors would not oppose transferring him to house arrest.
In any case, there would be little risk of him running away - Gabriele’s house is in the same courtyard as the gendarmes’ barracks and just a stone’s throw from that of the Swiss Guards, the pope’s army, whose colorful costumes are a major tourist draw.
The 130-strong gendarme corps was founded by Pope Pius VII in 1816 and was originally part of the pope’s military forces. Since 1970, they have evolved into the Vatican’s civil police force, responsible for investigating and preventing crime in the city-state, where around 800 people live.
Alongside the more famous Swiss Guards, who began their history as a mercenary army for the papacy when it was a major temporal power, the gendarmes patrol Vatican City and act as the pope’s personal guard when he is outside his living quarters. They accompany him on trips abroad and within Italy.
As the Inspector General of the gendarmes, Giani, a former officer with Italy’s financial police and the Sisde secret service, is more usually seen jogging alongside the moving popemobile as the pontiff’s chief protector.
The cardinals commission formally has no judicial powers but has been hearing people who could have information, Lombardi said.
It is also the only body that could call in fellow cardinals for questioning - something neither the Promotor of Justice nor the gendarmes can do.
Lombardi said no cardinals had been heard so far.
“They (the commission) do not want to feel under time pressure, they want to do things well with the necessary tranquility and the time that is needed,” Lombardi said.
The Vatican, which is hunting for other alleged leakers inside its ancient walls, has said that Gabriele’s rights will be guaranteed and that if he is indicted he would be given a fair trial.
Like in Italy, criminal cases at the Vatican can go to a full trial and two appeals. If handed a jail sentence, Gabriele would have to be transferred to an Italian prison, because the Vatican does not have one.
However, he could also plead for a papal pardon, which Vatican experts say the pontiff would be likely to grant.
Critics say the Vatican’s judiciary lacks transparency and independence, noting that the Holy See press office has been distributing statements by Gabriele’s lawyers.
Lombardi said this was requested by the lawyers themselves because they did not want to deal directly with the press.
“It seems to me that in this case the Vatican is acting as the judge, the prosecutor, the damaged party, and the press office - for itself and for the lawyers, who can only exercise in the state because they have been chosen by the Vatican,” said Gianluigi Nuzzi, an Italian journalist who sparked the scandal by publishing the leaked documents in a book.
“It’s the system of a monarchy rather than that of a democratic state,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Reporting By Silvia Aloisi; editing by Barry Moody and Jon Boyle