Pope's butler guilty in 'Vatileaks' case

Paolo Gabriele could face jail but insists he released papers to make Pontiff aware of endemic 'evil and corruption' in Rome

The Pope's butler was convicted yesterday 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 their deliberations. Paolo Gabriele stood impassively as it was read out in the tribunal tucked behind St Peter's Basilica.

The sentence was reduced from three years to 18 months because of a series of mitigating circumstances, including the fact 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.

Gabriele was accused of stealing the Pope's private correspondence and passing it on to a journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi, whose book, published earlier this year, revealed the intrigue, petty infighting and allegations of corruption and homosexual liaisons that plague the leadership of the Catholic church.

He said he leaked the documents as he felt the Pope wasn't being informed of the "evil and corruption" in the Vatican, and exposing the problems publicly would put the church back on the right track.

In his final appeal to the court on 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," he told the court.

Gabriele's attorney, Cristiana Arru, said the sentence was "good, balanced" and that 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, alongside Vatican magistrates, to investigate the origin of the leaks.

Ms Arru said Gabriele would return to his Vatican City apartment to begin serving his sentence. He has been held under house arrest since July. Gabriele was also ordered to pay court costs.

The Rev Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said a papal pardon was "concrete and likely" and that the Pope would now study the court file before deciding.

With the trial over, several questions still remain, most importantly whether Gabriele acted alone.

In his testimony this week, Gabriele insisted "in the most absolute way" that he had no accomplices. But in earlier statements to prosecutors, he named half a dozen people, including cardinals and monsignors, to whom he spoke and said he received "suggestions" from the general environment in which he lived. He even identified one layman as the source of a segment of Nuzzi's book detailing conflicts of interest among Vatican police officers.

But in his closing arguments, the prosecutor, Nicola Picardi, said the investigation turned up no proof of any complicity in Gabriele's scheme. "Suggestions aren't proof of the presence of accomplices," he said.

There is, however, another suspect in the case: Claudio Sciarpelletti, a 48-year-old computer expert in the Vatican secretariat of state, charged with aiding and abetting the crime. Police say they found an envelope in his desk marked "Personal P Gabriele" with documents inside.

Sciarpelletti has said Gabriele gave him the envelope, but later that someone gave it to him to pass on to him.

Sciarpelletti's lawyer, who got his case separated out at the start of Gabriele's trial, says his client is innocent and there were no "reserved documents" in the envelope.