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Michael Kelly: It's not Pope's butler who's on trial -- public's trust in church is really at stake

The Pope's private correspondence published in daily newspapers. A committee of octogenarian cardinals appointed to investigate the source of the leaks. A member of the Pontiff's innermost circle discovered with secret documents in his grace-and-favour apartment behind the walls of Vatican City state.

If Dan Brown, author of 'The Da Vinci Code', proposed such a scenario it would surely be ridiculed as far-fetched. But, that is exactly the series of events that will be laid before a Vatican court this morning, meeting for the first time in over a decade.

The case of Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict's butler, is set to shed light on alleged financial corruption and mismanagement at the heart of the Holy See. As one of only a handful of people with the key to the elevator that leads directly to Benedict XVI's private apartment, Mr Gabriele had virtually unrivalled access. He made it his business to see -- and make copies of -- confidential documents crossing the Pope's desk. As the man who served the Pontiff's meals, he was also on the fringes of many discreet dinners when senior Vatican officials discussed their concerns with the 85-year-old German Pontiff.

Mr Gabriele doesn't deny any of the charges, instead he claims that he acted to protect the Pope and save the church from scandal.

He told a pre-trial inquiry that he saw "evil and corruption everywhere in the church" and wanted to expose this. He has been living under house arrest since he was first detained by Vatican police in May. He could now find himself in prison for up to four years.

The documents, which Mr Gabriele admits he photocopied and passed to an Italian journalist, contained allegations of corruption in the Vatican's business dealings. Their exposure ensured that it was not just the cardinals' robes that were scarlet.

"I was sure that a shock, perhaps by using the media, could be a healthy thing to bring the church back on the right track," he told investigators.

Now Mr Gabriele will have his day in court, his co-accused is Claudio Sciarpelletti, a Vatican computer technician charged with aiding the butler. His trial will offer a rare glimpse inside the workings of Vatican City state's legal system. The court only meets on a Saturday since all the judges and lawyers work Monday-Friday in the Italian legal system. Ever since Vatican sovereignty was restored in 1929, the tiny city-state has operated its own criminal code. Such trials, however, are extremely rare. The only thing remotely similar was a trial for drug possession on Vatican property some 10 years ago.

While the trial will be filled with ecclesiastical intrigue, neither man will find himself imprisoned in the long-abandoned Papal cells in the Castel Sant'Angelo. If Mr Gabriele and Mr Sciarpelletti are found guilty and are sentenced to a jail term, they would serve that time in an Italian prison under the terms of a decades-old Italian-Vatican agreement that has never been used.

Of course, the high-profile trial is ultimately about much more than whether the butler is innocent or guilty. The documents he leaked were authentic and, as such, revealed troubling allegations about financial wrongdoing in the Vatican. This is an issue that the Pope and his close confidants must address if they are serious about accountability and public confidence in the church. Even if Mr Gabriele and his alleged co-conspirator are imprisoned, it will not silence the murmurings about scandal around financial goings-on at the heart of the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict may well use his prerogative as head of state of Vatican City to pardon the two men. In leaking the documents -- while undoubtedly betraying the Pope's confidence -- Mr Gabriele has undoubtedly done the church some service by shedding light on some of the darker sides of life in the Vatican.

Michael Kelly is Deputy Editor of 'The Irish Catholic' newspaper and on Twitter @MichaelKellyIC

Irish Independent