An Italian Job: Why Silvio Berlusconi Won’t Be Going to Jail Anytime Soon

My piece on Berlusconi’s latest conviction has just been published by Time.

The single most important thing to know about Silvio Berlusconi‘s Oct. 26 conviction on charges of tax fraud is that it’s not the first time the former Italian prime minister has been sentenced to jail. In his two decades of battling the judicial system, the billionaire media mogul has previously been found guilty three times, on charges ranging from perjury to illegal financing of a political party to the bribing a member of the tax police. Each time, he’s managed to get the charges overturned or dropped. There’s little reason to suspect that this time will be any different. “When Americans see a newsflash that Berlusconi has been convicted and sentenced to four years in prison, they picture a paddy wagon around the corner ready to take him away in a prison suit,” says Alexander Stille, author of The Sack of Rome, a biography of the former prime minister. “But if you know any thing about the Italian justice system, you know that’s very unlikely that he’ll go to jail anytime soon, or probably ever.”

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The Vatican Sentences the Pope’s Butler: Is a Pardon on the Way?

Time has just published my story on the verdict on the trial of the Pope’s butler.

Paolo Gabriele, the former butler to Pope Benedict XVI who was convicted Saturday of leaking the pontiff’s personal papers, has been sentenced to year and half in prison–but he’s unlikely to serve any time. Minutes after prosecutors declared Gabriele guilty of aggravated theft, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, told journalists assembled for the trial that a pardon by the Pope was a “likely hypothesis.” He added, “I can say this without fear of being contradicted.”

It was a trial in which the pontiff was at the same time the victim, the person in whose name the crime had been committed, the authority under which the proceedings were being held—the judgment was delivered “in the name of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, gloriously reigning” — and the ultimate arbiter of whether the sentence will be carried out.

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Sicily, a Portrait of Italian Dysfunction

Businessweek just published my story on Sicily as an extreme example of Italy’s political and economic dysfunction.

Giarre, a town in eastern Sicily, sits above the sea on the slopes of Mount Etna. It was once a famous collection point for the wine produced on the hills above, which was rolled down its main street in barrels to the port below. Today, Giarre bears a far more dubious distinction. The city of 27,000 hosts the largest number of uncompleted public projects in the country: 25 of them, nearly one for every 1,000 inhabitants. So spectacular is the waste that some locals have proposed promoting Giarre’s excess as a tourist attraction.

On an afternoon in September, I toured some of Giarre’s most notorious eyesores with Turi Caggegi, a journalist who has been writing about government waste since the 1990s. Caggegi showed off a partly built, graffiti-covered theater where work has started and stopped 12 times. It has yet to host a show. Not far away stood a hospital that took 30 years to build and was outdated before it was ready to open. Later, Caggegi drove past an Olympic-size swimming pool that was sunk but never completed. “So much money wasted,” he said. “And it wasn’t that they were spending it on productive investments. They were buying votes.”

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The Pope’s Butler Testifies: Innocent of Theft, Guilty of Betrayal?

Time has just published my story on the testimony the Pope’s butler gave during his trial.

Before Paolo Gabriele turned himself in to Vatican authorities for passing Pope Benedict XVI’s personal papers to the press last May, he wanted to do one last thing. “I needed to surrender myself to the authorities, but I didn’t know how,” the former butler to the Pope recalled on Tuesday, during testimony in the trial against him. “The first step was spiritual. I went to a confessor and explained what I had done.”

Gabriele, a layman with a wife and three children, was calm and sometimes smiling during the three hours he spent giving evidence in the second day of his trial on charges of aggravated theft. He wore a light gray suit. His face was thin, barely a shade darker than the cream-colored wall of the courtroom behind him. As butler, Gabriele could hardly have been in a more intimate position with the head of the Catholic Church. He had served the Pope his meals, helped him pack for trips and, when the weather turned foul, he had held the umbrella that protected the Pontiff from the rain. “Concerning the accusation of aggravated theft, I declare myself innocent,” he said. “I feel guilty for having betrayed the trust vested in me by the Holy Father, whom I loved as if I were his son.”

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The Trial of the Pope’s Butler and How the Vatican Works

Time has just published my story on the trial of the Pope’s butler.

It was what passes for transparency at the Vatican. Only eight reporters were permitted to attend the opening session on Saturday of the trial of the former butler to Pope Benedict XVI, Paolo Gabriele, who is accused of stealing and leaking the Pontiff’s personal papers. Before entering the courtroom, the journalists were asked to check their purses, cell phones and keys and pass through a metal detector. Even their writing implements were confiscated, replaced once they were inside by orange ball-point pens supplied by the Vatican. “They basically did not want you to bring in pens for fear that they were either audio or visual recording instruments,” says one of the attendant reporters, who asked to remain anonymous citing rules drawn up by the Vatican press corps forbidding the journalists who attended from telling their personal stories.

The trial, which is expected to wrap up by the end of the week, has been billed by some journalists as the most significant legal proceeding since the 16th century when Giordano Bruno was tried for heresy and burned at the stake. But that’s less a reflection of the gravity of the charges against Gabriele than of the type of cases the Vatican’s judicial system is usually called upon to handle. The proceedings took place in a corner of the Vatican city state, in a small courtroom normally reserved for petty crimes involving tourists or pilgrims. If convicted, Gabriele could face up to four years in prison — a term that would be served in an Italian facility.

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