ROME - It was a disquieting statement from the former butler of Pope Benedict XVI, as he took the stand in a Vatican court hearing his case.
Paolo Gabriele, who lived for six years in the papal apartment, explained the motives that had led him to photocopy the Pope's private papers: "Over time, I developed the conviction that it was easy to manipulate the person who had such an important decision-making power."
He also recounted what occasionally happened at lunch in the pontiff's private apartment. "Sometimes, when we were sitting at the table, the Pope would ask about things he should have been informed about." That is, he seemed not to know facts that he should have known.
Government decisions, controversial appointments of bishops: over the past few years, it has been evident that the man born Joseph Ratzinger is by no means easy to manipulate. It is another matter, however, to maintain that the pope is always as informed as he should be.
Gabriele was prepared to elaborate on his statement, but when he began to describe some examples, the president of the Tribunal stopped him because it was not "necessary to go into particulars.”
Lonely popes of the past?
The concrete examples he mentioned in his earlier interrogation were already in the court papers. Gabriele's words raised yet again the spectre of the "solitude" of the pope. The subject has been widely debated since the time of John Paul II, Ratzinger's predecessor, when there were polemics on the Church's management of the case of alleged child abuse committed by Legionaries Of Christ founder Father Maciel -- and the fact that news about the case had been "filtered."
The subject of the pope's isolation, and the concomitant excessive power of a very small entourage, was even discussed in relation to Paul VI and Pius XII.
In March 2009, on his way to Cameroon, Benedict XVI retorted in response to such a question, "This myth about my solitude makes me laugh. I do not feel alone in any way. Every day, in my agenda, I have meetings with my closest collaborators, beginning with the Secretary of State and down to all the government ministers, whom I see regularly," he said. "Every day I meet bishops for 'ad limina' visits [‘ad limina’ is the requirement that a Catholic bishop visit Rome at least once every five years]. So, there is no solitude at all. I am really surrounded by friends."
However, during that same African trip, the Pontiff's answer to a question about condom use provoked an uproar around the world and at all levels of society. European governments were not supportive. The pope's employees decided not to inform him of the media and political storm going on during the journey, preferring to let him know only after his return to Rome.