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Vatileaks scandal ends with a slap and a whimper

Despite two convictions, the leaks scandal that enveloped the Vatican ended the way it began: shrouded in mystery, writes Josephine McKenna, an Australian freelance journalist in Vatican City.

The Vatileaks scandal, which gave us voyeuristic peek inside the fierce power plays and alleged corruption inside the Vatican when it exploded early this year, ended with a whimper at the weekend. And despite two convictions the case closed pretty much as it began — shrouded in mystery.

On Saturday a Vatican court convicted Claudio Sciarpelletti, a 48-year-old computer programmer, for helping the Pope’s former butler Paolo Gabriele leak confidential papers to an Italian journalist.

After two brief court hearings Sciarpelletti was effectively given a slap on the wrist: a two-month suspended sentence with five years’ probation. Now he seems unlikely to go to prison as his defence counsel prepares his appeal.

The technician appeared for the first time last Monday before three judges in the same tiny Vatican courtroom where Gabriele was sentenced to 18 months in prison after being found guilty of aggravated theft last month.

Gabriele, a 46-year-old father of three, may yet receive a papal pardon. But where does that leave the financial mismanagement and rifts within the church allegedly revealed by the leaked documents?

The evil has to be identified as such and be repaired,” said respected Vatican watcher Salvatore Izzo. “Then he can or he should be pardoned but not before there is clarity.”

Gabriele provoked an uproar within the church after copies of the documents he leaked were published in the top-selling book, His Holiness, by Italian journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi early this year. He told investigators after his arrest he wanted to expose the “evil and corruption” he saw around him, telling judges at his own trial that he believed the Pope was poorly informed about what was going on at the Vatican.

Sciarpelletti has spent the past 20 years in the Secretariat of State (Holy See), the pivotal international arm of the Catholic Church. He was responsible for maintaining all the computers used by Vatican employees. On May 25, police officers found an envelope in his desk marked “Personal — Paolo Gabriele”, which contained details of alleged conflicts of interest among Vatican police officers.

In an unusual twist, the judges on Saturday sentenced Sciarpelletti for giving conflicting evidence, rather than for concealing the documents which were described as “irrelevant”.

Sciarpelleti first told police he had received the documents from Gabriele, then from his boss Father Carlo Maria Polvani, nephew of Monsignor Carlo Maria Vigano, now Vatican ambassador to Washington, whose allegations of kickbacks in Vatican contracts ended up in Nuzzi’s book. In court Sciarpelletti changed his story again and said he received the envelope two years ago and could no longer recall who had given it to him. When questioned Polvani denied handing over the documents.

The trial was expected to shed light on whether the pair acted alone or part of a broader political struggle within the Catholic Church but chances of that have now dimmed, even though another protagonist Monsignor Piero Pennacchini, former deputy head of the press office, was named in testimony. But here was a case where the courtroom was open to only a handful of journalists, had barely any witnesses and no telephone or email exchanges were admitted as evidence.

The whole point was not to discover what were the connections of the people involved, and whether they had supporters, if not accomplices,” Marco Politi, author of Joseph Ratzinger: Crisis of a Papacy, said after the verdict. ”It is just not credible that Sciarpelletti cannot remember who gave him the envelope.”

Father Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Centre at Georgetown University in Washington DC, said the case exposed power plays between the former Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone and other powerful protagonists that had not been resolved. But he told Crikey it also raises questions about transparency at a time when the Catholic Church is still battling the worldwide scourge of clerical abuse.

In most crimes people trust police and prosecutors to look for co-conspirators and trust them when they say there are none,” he said. “When it is a government or a church scandal many people are suspicious that investigators did not dig very far or there was a cover-up. For the government it is the legacy of Watergate, for the church it is the legacy of the sex abuse crisis.”

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