Pope Pardons His Butler Paolo Gabriele

Two months after he was convicted of stealing his boss's private papers, Paolo Gabriele has been given a a papal pardon.

12.22.12 4:20 PM ET

Christmas came early for Paolo Gabriele, the erstwhile butler of Pope Benedict XVI. After an early morning meeting in Garbriele's Vatican City prison cell on Saturday, the pontiff did what Catholics do best: he forgave his butler's sins. "Paolo has been forgiven," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told the press, who had been summoned with little notice to hear the news. "This constitutes a paternal gesture toward a person with whom the Pope shared a relationship of daily familiarity for many years."

The pardon concludes what Lombardi called a "sad and painful chapter" for the pope, who said he felt hurt by his butler's betrayal. Gabriele was convicted of aggravated theft and sentenced to 18 months in prison on October 6 for stealing the pope's private papers and passing them on to journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, who published the papers in a sensational bestselling book His Holiness last May. A few days after the book came out, Gabriele was arrested and locked away inside Vatican City. At the time, Vatican police said they found a substantial document cache in addition to a gold nugget, an original script by Virgil, and a check for €100,000 made out to Benedict XVI. During his speedy trial, Gabriele admitted to photocopying documents, but said he did it to try to stop the evil he saw in the church and to protect the pope. "I don't feel guilty of aggravated theft," Gabriele told the judges. "But I do feel guilty of betraying trust of the Holy Father, who loved me like a son."

A month after Gabriele's conviction, another Vatican employee, Cladio Sciarpelletti, was convicted of aiding and abetting the butler in his deceit. Sciarpelletti was a computer technician in the Holy See's office of the Secretary of State and was convicted of helping Gabriele smuggle the documents out in digital form. Specifically, Vatican police say they found a packet of documents with Gabriele's name written in Sciarpelletti's handwriting that included emails, letters, and a small book. Sciarpelletti said he didn't recall how the envelope made its way to his desk, or why he wrote Gabriele's name on it. Nevertheless, Sciarpelletti's involvement was seen as secondary to the butler's crime. On Saturday, Lombardi said that Sciarpelletti, whose sentence was suspended, had also been pardoned by the pope and that he has since returned to work in the secretary of state's office. 

The papal pardons were widely expected, but they still don't answer many questions about the embarrassing security breach and scandal that has come to be known as "Vatileaks," especially who might have been the mastermind. Few believe that Gabriele would have had the kind of access to information or insider knowledge that would allow him to pick and choose the documents shuttled to Nuzzi. He was likely a conduit rather than a true source. Nuzzi now admits that Gabriele gave him the goods, but he won't say if anyone else was involved.

Last week, the pope met with the commission of cardinals he assigned to run a parallel investigation into the Vatileaks scandal. The commission was tasked with finding out who, if anyone, inside the Roman Curia might have been involved with the breach. The first report by the commission was submitted to the pope last July, but has not been made public. Nor have the minutes from the pope's recent meeting. Writing in Vatican Insider, noted Vaticanist Andrea Tornielli ponders whether the butler's trial may be only the beginning and whether the commission may hold the real truth—if it is ever released to the public. "The Vatican tribunal took care of the so-called external hole, that is, the public consequences of the Vatileaks scandal, the job of the three cardinals appointed by the pope to investigate the affair was to deal with the internal hole," he wrote. "But now that the confidential documents have revealed the truth about what's really going on inside the Vatican, there's no putting a lid on the issue."

That may be, but the Vatican has sought to consider the papal pardons an end point—at least where the secular press is concerned. "The saga has ended now," said Lombardi on Saturday, noting that Gabriele "cannot resume his work and can no longer live inside Vatican City," but that the Holy See wished him well as he sought to start a new life with his family. Since it seems unlikely that the papal commission will shed any light on the topic, it now remains to be seen whether Gabriele will stay quiet about the real story behind Vatileaks now that he's no longer inside Vatican City. That will be the real measure of whether or not the saga has ended.