VATICAN CITY (RNS) When Pope Benedict XVI circled St. Peter's Square last Wednesday (May 23) in his popemobile during his weekly general audience, Paolo Gabriele, his "assistente di camera," or butler, was sitting right beside him, as he had been doing for the last six years.
But the shadows of suspicion were already hanging heavily over Gabriele, and within hours, he would be arrested on charges of being "illicitly in possession" of some of the pope's private documents.
Now, people are asking how it could have happened and, more basically, who is Paolo Gabriele?
According to a reconstruction by Italy's daily La Repubblica, Gabriele had been approached the day before his arrest by Benedict's personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Ganswein.
He warned Gabriele that investigators were closing in on him as the person who had been stealing private memos, notes and letters from the pontiff's desk over the last six months, and leaking them to the Italian media. He also offered him a chance to confess and explain his actions.
Partially confirming La Repubblica's story, the Vatican's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said it would have been "surreal" if the pope's secretary had not approached Gabriele as suspicions arose about his involvement.
But the pope's butler, according to La Repubblica, denied any wrongdoing. That night, Vatican police arrested Gabriele after raiding his home in the Vatican City State and seized "a large number of confidential papal documents," according to L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's semiofficial newspaper.
Yet, even if the evidence against the 46-year-old butler appears strong, just about everyone in the Vatican is struggling to explain his actions, and find it hard to believe he acted alone.
"I was very surprised when I heard of his arrest," says Fausto Gasparroni, a Vatican correspondent for the Italian news agency ANSA, who has traveled with Gabriele on papal trips. "He always seemed a very devout, very pious person."
Such feelings are shared by many who had gotten to know him over the years.
Gabriele was Pope Benedict's "assistente di camera" since 2006. His tasks included helping the 85-year-old pontiff get dressed in the morning and accompanying him on all his meetings throughout the day. He often served at the pope's table and, in the evening, he readied the pope's room before he went to bed.
"Paoletto," as he was familiarly known in the Vatican, had entered the service of the papal household in 1998. He had started a few years earlier in one of the Vatican's humblest jobs, a cleaner in the Secretariat of State. There, his simple manners, strong faith and good heart had made an impression.
According to a person who knew him well but asked to remain anonymous, in past years Gabriele's reputation and kindness led many low-ranking Vatican employees to turn to him for help. At least once in the past, he had allegedly agreed to use his access to the pope in order to help someone who had requested his assistance.
Since his arrest, Gabriele has been in custody in one of the Vatican's "safe rooms," in the headquarters of the Vatican police, just a few hundred yards away from the house where he lived with his wife and three children. His lawyers say that he wants to "fully cooperate" with Vatican investigators.
Speaking at Wednesday's (May 30) general audience, Pope Benedict confessed his "sadness" for the "the events of recent days." But he also assured his staff that they still enjoyed his "confidence" despite the rumors and speculations running wild in the Vatican and in the Italian press.