VATICAN CITY — A Vatican trial is not like a U.S. trial, in fact, as one Vatican judge had told us last week, “It’s not like Perry Mason.” Several factors are widely different, as we’re discovering while following the trial of Pope Benedict’s former valet, Paolo Gabriele, who’s been charged with stealing confidential documents and leaking them to the press.
What struck us most today was that whatever the suspect and witnesses tell the court is not recorded verbatim in the court record. Today the prosecutor, the head judge and defense lawyer all questioned Gabriele who responded sometimes at length. The head judge, Giuseppe Dalla Torre, then verbally restated the defendant’s response, in the first person; Gabriele was asked to approve the summary, which then was entered into the court’s permanent record.
While many of the “verbali” or verbal summaries were accurate, some information was omitted, perhaps because it was determined extraneous by the judge. One example was when Gabriele declared he was innocent of aggravated theft, but felt guilty of betraying the pope whom Gabriele said he loved “like a son.”
The verbal summary included his admission of innocence and feelings of having betrayed a trust, but excluded his sentiment of filial love.
Another difference is the three-judge panel does not seem to be interested in motive: Why Gabriele did what he did. He has said he was driven by a desire to unmask examples of mismanagement and jockeying for power inside the church’s headquarters.
The head judge interrupted the defense lawyer’s line of questioning Gabriele about his motives, saying they had nothing to do with the trial, which was only concerned with “the facts.”
Like trials in Italy, at a Vatican trial the defendant does not take an oath before his testimony; a suspect does not have a right to remain silent to avoid self-incrimination, but can resort to telling “untruths” to protect himself.
Witnesses, however, do take an oath, and in the Vatican this morning it mirrored the typical courtroom scene: Witnesses swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Another peculiar practice — and one that even threw Msgr. Georg Ganswein, who testified today — was that all the questions are addressed to the head judge. So when Gabriele’s defense lawyer questioned Msgr. Ganswein, the pope’s personal secretary (and, effectively, Gabriele’s immediate superior) she looked at the judge while asking what the monsignor knew. Obviously confused by the extremely formal procedure, Msgr. Ganswein didn’t seem to know where to look — at the judge or lawyer asking the questions. He excused himself, saying, “It’s the first time I have done something like this.”