A Lonely Pontiff? In Trial Of His Butler, Hints Of Benedict XVI's Isolation

Andrea Tornielli

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.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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