On a bright Saturday morning in Rome, as the bells of St. Peter’s chimed in the distance, Paolo Gabriele, the pope’s erstwhile butler, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after a Vatican tribunal found him guilty of aggravated theft for stealing private papal documents and leaking them to the press.
In his closing arguments, the prosecutor, called the promoter of justice in Vatican speak, asked the judges to sentence Gabriele to three years in prison, one year less than the maximum prison term allowed by the Vatican penal code. Gabriele’s defense lawyer then asked the court to throw out the charges, insisting that, if anything, her client was guilty of misappropriation, not theft, and therefore could not be found guilty as charged.
Before retiring to the chambers to deliberate, lead judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre asked Gabriele if he felt guilty. Gabriele, who has admitted photocopying hundreds of documents—many which were marked “to be destroyed” by the pope himself—said that he acted out of a visceral love for the church and the pope. “I do not feel like a thief,” he said. It took the three-judge panel just two hours to decide Gabriele’s fate.
The Saturday verdict comes after a relatively speedy weeklong trial in which Gabriele and others in the pontifical family testified about just what goes on in the pope’s inner circle. During the initial interrogation, Gabriele told investigators that he was frustrated by the lack of transparency in the Holy See, and it bothered him that the pope often posed questions about things he should have been briefed on at the dinner table he shared with Gabriele, four nuns who cleaned and cooked for him, and his two private secretaries, who are both priests. “He should have been more informed,” Gabriele said.
Gabriele insisted that he had no accomplices in leaking the documents to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, who published them in his book His Holiness, but then he added that he wasn’t the only one who gave sensitive documents to journalists. “I don’t feel guilty of theft,” Gabriele said when he testified Tuesday. “But I do feel guilty of betraying trust of the Holy Father, who loved me like a son.”
The case of the stolen documents, dubbed VatiLeaks by the pope’s own spokesperson, has been one of the most embarrassing scandals to rock the Holy See in recent memory. The documents published in Nuzzi’s book outlined alleged financial corruption and painted a picture of the Holy See as a nest of vipers where high-ranking cardinals tried to undermine each other in a fight for positions of power with an eye toward the next papal conclave. Some of the most damaging documents were aimed at Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, who was depicted as an incompetent aide to the pope. Gabriele said he leaked the documents to root out “evil and corruption” that had infiltrated the church he loved.
During intensive searches of Gabriele’s private apartments in Vatican City and Castel Gandolfo, where the pope spends his summers, investigators confiscated 82 boxes of documents. They also found a gold nugget, an original script by Virgil, and a check for €100,000 made out to Benedict XVI. Gabriele’s lawyer tried in vain to have the court discount the gold nugget and check from the body of evidence against the butler, because investigators did not wear gloves or take photos or video of the searches. The court did not agree and instead found him guilty of all charges. But they ruled that because Gabriele had no prior criminal record and had given many years of service to the church, he would have to serve only 18 months instead of three years.
Because the Vatican has no prison of its own, Gabriele will have to serve his sentence in an Italian prison—if he serves time at all. In Italy, most convicts do not have to serve sentences 18 months or less. For now Gabriele is on house arrest, staying at home in his Vatican City apartment with his wife and three children. His lawyer has three days to decide whether to appeal the verdict, which may not even be necessary, because the pope is expected to pardon him anyway, according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.
“There is a concrete possibility that the pope will pardon him,” said Lombardi after the verdict. “But it is up to him when and how.”