VATICAN CITY — The pope's butler was convicted Saturday of stealing the pontiff's private documents and leaking them to a journalist in the gravest Vatican security breach in recent memory. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, but the Vatican said a papal pardon was likely.
Judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre read the verdict aloud two hours after the three-judge Vatican panel began deliberating Paolo Gabriele's fate. Gabriele stood impassively as it was read out in the tiny wood-paneled tribunal tucked behind St. Peter's Basilica.
The sentence was reduced in half to 18 months from three years because of a series of mitigating circumstances, including that Gabriele had no previous record, had acknowledged that he had betrayed the pope and was convinced, "albeit erroneously" that he was doing the right thing, Dalla Torre said.
Gabriele was accused of stealing the pope's private correspondence and passing it on to journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, whose book revealed the intrigue, petty infighting and allegations of corruption and homosexual liaisons that plague the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.
He has said he leaked the documents because he felt the pope wasn't being informed of the "evil and corruption" in the Vatican, and that exposing the problems publicly would put the church back on the right track.
In his final appeal to the court Saturday morning, Gabriele insisted he was no thief.
"The thing I feel strongly in me is the conviction that I acted out of exclusive love, I would say visceral love, for the church of Christ and its visible head," Gabriele told the court in a steady voice. "I do not feel like a thief."
Gabriele's attorney, Cristiana Arru, said the sentence was "good, balanced" and said she was awaiting the judges' written reasoning before deciding whether to appeal.
Nuzzi's book, "His Holiness: Pope Benedict XVI's Secret Papers" convulsed the Vatican for months and prompted an unprecedented response, with the pope naming a commission of cardinals to investigate the origin of the leaks alongside Vatican magistrates.
Arru said Gabriele would return to his Vatican City apartment to begin serving his sentence. He has been held on house arrest there since July after spending his first two months in a Vatican detention room.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the possibility of a papal pardon was "concrete, likely" and that the pope would now study the court file and decide. He said there was no way to know when a papal pardon might be announced.
Gabriele was also ordered to pay court costs.
In something of a novelty in jurisprudence, the pope was both victim and supreme judge in this case. As an absolute monarch of the tiny Vatican City state, Benedict wields full executive, legislative and judicial power. He delegates that power, though, and Lombardi said the trial showed the complete independence of the Vatican judiciary.
In reading the sentence, however, in a courtroom decorated with a photograph of Benedict on the wall opposite Gabriele, Dalla Torre began: "In the name of His Holiness Benedict XVI, gloriously reigning, the tribunal invoking the Holy Trinity pronounces the following sentence..."
In her closing arguments, Arru insisted that only photocopies, not original documents, were taken from the Apostolic Palace, disputing testimony from the pope's secretary who said he saw original letters in the evidence seized from Gabriele's home.
She admitted Gabriele's gesture was "condemnable" but said it was a misappropriation of documents, not theft, and that as a result Gabriele should serve no time for the lesser crime.
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