VATICAN CITY — There was a time when a Vatican trial could end with a heretic being burned at the stake.
Paolo Gabriele doesn't risk nearly as dire a fate, but he and the Holy See face a very public airing over the gravest security breach in the Vatican's recent history following the theft and leaking of the pope's personal papers.
Mr. Gabriele, the pope's once-trusted butler, goes on trial Saturday, accused of stealing the pope's documents and passing them off to a journalist -- a sensational, Hollywood-like scandal that exposed power struggles, intrigue and allegations of corruption in the highest levels of the Catholic Church.
Mr. Gabriele is charged with aggravated theft and faces up to four years in prison if convicted by the three-judge Vatican tribunal. He already has confessed and asked to be pardoned by the pope -- something most Vatican watchers say is a given if he is convicted -- making the trial almost a formality.
It's the most high-profile case to come to the Vatican tribunal since its creation with the 1929 birth of the Vatican city state. The only other one that comes close was aborted before it began: the 1998 killing of the Swiss Guard commander and his wife allegedly by a disgruntled subordinate never came about because the suspect committed suicide.
To be sure, trials are nothing new at the Vatican: In 2011 alone, 640 civil cases and 226 penal cases were processed by the Vatican's judiciary, though only a handful actually came to trial.
And that's not counting the marriage annulments, clerical sex abuse cases and other church law matters that come before the Vatican's ecclesiastical courts.
Yet this case will cast an unusually bright spotlight on the Vatican's legal system, which is based on the 19th-century Italian criminal code, and the unique situation in which the pope is essentially the victim and supreme judge in this case.
The Vatican is an elective absolute monarchy, with the pope having full executive, legislative and judicial authority. He delegates that power through executive appointments, legislative commissions and tribunals.
But he can intervene to stop a trial from starting, can pardon someone once convicted and the sentence is issued in his name.
Giovanni Giacobbe, the Vatican's appeals court prosecutor, insisted that despite the pope's authority, Vatican judges are wholly independent.
"The judges have never received pressure to decide in one direction or another," he told reporters at a Vatican briefing Thursday. "The pope can't tell the tribunal what to do."
Mr. Gabriele was arrested May 24 after Vatican police found what prosecutors called an "enormous" stash of documents from the pope's desk in his Vatican City apartment.
Many of those documents appeared in the book "His Holiness: Pope Benedict XVI's Secret Papers," by Gianluigi Nuzzi, an Italian journalist whose earlier book on the Vatican bank caused a sensation.
Mr. Gabriele later confessed to passing the documents off to Mr. Nuzzi, hoping to expose what he considered the "evil and corruption" in the church, according to prosecutors.
They described Mr. Gabriele as a devout but misguided would-be whistleblower who believed the Holy Spirit had inspired him to protect and inform the pope about the problems around him.
Mr. Gabriele is being tried along with a co-defendant, Claudio Sciarpelletti, a computer expert in the Secretariat of State who is charged with aiding and abetting Mr. Gabriele.
While the Vatican legal system will be on display during the trial, so too will be the peculiarities of the Vatican city state itself, the world's smallest sovereign state.
Mr. Gabriele is both a Vatican citizen and resident of a Vatican City apartment (one of 595 citizens of whom 247 are residents).
So the pope is not only Mr. Gabriele's former boss, he is also his landlord, his spiritual head as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and his head of state, not to mention the authority who appointed the prosecutor and the three lay judges who will hear Mr. Gabriele's case and decide by majority if he is guilty.