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  • John Thavis

The papal butler’s “vow of silence”?

Last Christmas, Pope Benedict pardoned Paolo Gabriele, his former valet who was tried and convicted for leaking confidential documents to the press. The pope’s move seemed like the classic Vatican happy ending to the Vatileaks affair, an act of forgiveness that transcended the revelations of petty conflict in the Roman Curia.

There’s a postscript, however, and it raises some familiar questions about transparency and secrecy at the Vatican.

The Italian magazine Panorama reported earlier this month that when the Vatican assigned Gabriele to a position at the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesù Hospital, it was on the condition that he refrain from talking to the press. The magazine said Gabriele signed a commitment “not to give interviews or make statements” in exchange for his new job.

The impression left by the Panorama article was that the Vatican’s reconciliation effort was, in effect, a stratagem to buy the silence of a man who might have much more to say.

I spoke with Vatican officials who, not surprisingly, offered a much different take. First, they said Gabriele had not signed such a promise — at least not yet — and had not taken up any new employment position.

Second, they argued that it wouldn’t be so strange if such a promise of silence were eventually asked of Gabriele, or offered by him, in view of the fact that he himself has expressed remorse over leaking the documents and damaging the image of the pope. Gabriele’s “repentance” was a key reason for the pope’s pardon and for the Vatican offer of a new job, and if he was being honest, it would be hard to imagine him now sidelining as a guest on talk shows or writing a tell-all book.

Vatican officials are well aware that Gabriele will receive attractive financial offers to tell his story, if he hasn’t already.

One reason the Vatican would view a “vow of silence” as normal is that all Roman Curia employees are expected to protect the secrecy of their work affairs. The General Regulations of the Roman Curia, in fact, stipulate that employees take an oath promising to maintain secrecy — not just on important “pontifical” matters but on everything handled by their department.

In the Vatican’s view, this is not a “gag order” but simply recognition that employment at the Holy See is not like any other job. As Pope John Paul II wrote when he promulgated his version of the regulations, the Roman Curia has no equivalent in civil society, and requires a sense of communion with the mission of the supreme pontiff.

In theory, Vatican employees are not only supposed to avoid taking documents and notes out of the office, but are forbidden from meeting “outsiders” in the office or even talking to non-authorized personnel about their work without expressed permission from superiors. Fortunately for journalists, most Vatican officials routinely bend those rules.

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