VATICAN CITY – A painful and damaging chapter in Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy closed Saturday with the conviction of his former butler on charges he stole the pontiff’s private letters and leaked them to a journalist. But questions remain as to whether anyone else was involved in the plot, and when the pope will pardon his once-trusted aide.
Paolo Gabriele, until recently affectionately dubbed “Paoletto” by his intimate pontifical family, stood stone-faced as Judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre read out the conviction and sentenced him to 18 months in prison for the gravest Vatican security breach in recent memory.
The decision, reached after just two hours of deliberations, capped a remarkable weeklong trial that saw the pope’s closest adviser, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, and a half dozen Vatican police officers testify about a betrayal of the pope that exposed the unseemly side of the Catholic Church’s governance.
The highest-profile case to come before a court that usually handles 30 cases of petty theft a year ended none too soon: Today, Benedict opens a two-week synod, or meeting of the world’s bishops, summoned to Rome to chart the church’s future evangelization mission and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. By putting the embarrassing leaks scandal behind it, the Vatican has removed a major and unwelcome distraction.
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 Vatican’s secretive universe.
Gabriele 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, Gabriele insisted he never intended to hurt the church or the pope.
“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.”
The sentence was reduced by 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’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.
Nevertheless, 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.