Vatileaks 'accomplice' denies ties with pope's butler

A Vatican computer technician on trial for helping Pope Benedict XVI's butler leak secret memos with claims of corruption in the Holy See on Monday denied having close ties with his alleged accomplice.

Pope Benedict XVI and his former butler Paolo Gabriele (right) arrive at St Peter's Square for a weekly audience in 2006. A Vatican computer technician accused of helping Gabriele leak secret memos has denied "frequent contact" with his alleged accomplice at the start of his trial.

Claudio Sciarpelletti was attending the first hearing in his trial in the tiny state's courtroom, where it emerged that Vatican police had been tipped off to his links with disgraced ex-butler Paolo Gabriele via an anonymous note.

The 48-year-old is accused of aiding and abetting Gabriele, who was sentenced to 18 months in jail in a separate trial last month after he admitted leaking papers that revealed cloak-and-dagger intrigue in the Vatican.

"It all began with an anonymous note from an official in the Vatican's Secretary of State, who spoke of frequent meetings between Gabriele and Sciarpelletti," the technician's lawyer, Gianluca Benedetti, told the court.

But Benedetti said that Sciarpelletti did not have "a close friendship (and) frequent contact" with Gabriele. The technician, a well-built man with brown hair, was in a dark suit and kept his head down for much of the hearing.

"They saw each other only rarely," the lawyer said, after Sciarpelletti and Gabriele briefly nodded to each other at the start of the unusual trial.

The computer expert faces a possible sentence of up to one year in prison.

Gabriele, who is now serving time in a holding cell within the Vatican as he awaits a possible pardon from the pope, is to testify later in the trial.

He too was at the trial, looking grave but smiling to some of the witnesses.

Also expected to take the stand is Carlo Maria Polvani, a leading prelate and nephew of Carlo Maria Vigano, formerly the Vatican's top administrator who had written letters to the pope which were later leaked alleging corruption.

Among the other witnesses are William Kloter, deputy commander of the Swiss Guard, and Domenico Giani, the powerful head of the Vatican police force.

The next hearing is scheduled for Saturday as the Vatican rushes to wind up the embarrassing scandal, which has added to the mood of crisis following the clerical child abuse scandals and concern over rising secularism in Western societies.

The cases in what has been dubbed the "Vatileaks" scandal by the Italian press are the biggest the Vatican has ever tried in its modern history. Normal fare for the court is cases of petty theft involving tourists.

The technician was arrested on May 25 as the investigation into the leaks unfolded but spent only one night in a Vatican cell before being released.

A search by Vatican police unearthed a suspicious envelope addressed to Gabriele in Sciarpelleti's desk bearing the official stamp of the Vatican.

In it, they found photocopies of memos published by investigative journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi in his book "His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Pope Benedict XVI", including allegations of cronyism involving two Vatican police officers.

Sciarpelletti's testimony was confused and contradictory when he was called to account.

He said Gabriele had given him the envelope because he wanted his opinion on the contents, but that he had never opened it and had forgotten it was there.

He later said it was someone else entirely who had given him the envelope -- a person identified in court documents only by the letter "W".

He also talked about a second envelope, given to him by a certain "X".

Benedetti said his client was in "an emotional state" during questioning.

Vatican watchers hope Sciarpelletti's turn in the dock will shed light on issues left hanging by the butler's trial -- one of the most pressing being whether Gabriele really did act alone or whether there was a wider conspiracy.

Following a specific request by Sciarpelletti, no photographers or cameramen were allowed into the trial, which was taking place in an area of the Vatican that is strictly off limits to the millions of tourists who visit every year.

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Writer: AFP
Position: News agency