VATICAN CITY -– A Vatican court Saturday found former papal butler Paolo Gabriele guilty of aggravated theft in the pilfering and leaking of private internal documents in a scandal that brought extraordinary attention to the heart of the Roman Catholic Church.
The three-judge panel senteced Gabriele to three years in prison, reduced to one and a half, because they said he had understood that he had betrayed Pope Benedict XVI and had acted under an “erroneous” sense of loyalty.
Gabriele, in a brief statement following lawyers’ closing arguments in the small courtroom, said he had acted only out of a “visceral love” for the church and the pope, insisting that “I don’t feel that I’m a thief.”
The 46-year-old father of three, who had served at the pontiff’s side for more than six years, dramatically swept aside the secrecy that enshrouds the Vatican because of the “evil and corruption” he believed needed rooting out. The leaked documents revealed an institution marred by corruption and cronyism, with infighting at the highest echelons of the Vatican.
In closing arguments Saturday, just one week after the sensational trial began, defense attorney Cristina Arru asked the court to reduce Gabriele’s charges from theft to misappropriation because, she said, he had merely copied material to which he had legitimate access and hadn’t actually stolen documents.
She said he had been moved to act by “high moral motives” and “a spirit of “profound faith.” He felt “forced by the evil he saw” inside the church, she said.
The judges returned their verdict two hours after closing arguments finished.
Prosecutor Nicola Picardi said investigators had determined that Gabriele had no accomplices in the pilfering of the material, which eventually was passed on to an Italian journalist who divulged the contents in a television expose and in a best-selling book. Gabriele himself has said he acted alone.
It was the publication of “His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI” that led the pope’s personal secretary, Monsignor George Ganswein, and then investigators, to Gabriele.
Gabriele admitted photocopying thousands of documents and giving them to an Italian journalist, insisting he did so out of love for the pope and the church. The material found by Vatican police in his apartment included papal correspondence, encrypted diplomatic dispatches and other papers, which were published in the book.
The leak was one of the most serious security breaches in Vatican history, analysts said.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said there was a “concrete” possibility that Benedict would issue a papal pardon for Gabriele.