The Vatican Sentences the Pope’s Butler: Is a Pardon on the Way?

The pontiff was the victim, the person in whose name the crime was committed, the authority under which the trial was held and the arbiter of whether the sentence will be carried out.

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Osservatore Romano / Reuters

Pope Benedict's former butler Paolo Gabriele (2nd R) listens to the court at the Vatican Oct. 6, 2012. A Vatican court found Gabriele guilty of stealing sensitive documents and sentenced him to a year and a half in prison.

Paolo Gabriele, the former butler to Pope Benedict XVI who was convicted Saturday of leaking the pontiff’s personal papers, has been sentenced to year and half in prison–but he’s unlikely to serve any time. Minutes after prosecutors declared Gabriele guilty of aggravated theft, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, told journalists assembled for the trial that a pardon by the Pope was a “likely hypothesis.” He added, “I can say this without fear of being contradicted.”

It was a trial in which the pontiff was at the same time the victim, the person in whose name the crime had been committed, the authority under which the proceedings were being held—the judgment was delivered “in the name of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, gloriously reigning” — and the ultimate arbiter of whether the sentence will be carried out.

(MORE: The Trial of the Pope’s Butler and How the Vatican Works)

With Gabriele having confessed, the outcome of the case was never really in doubt; expectations of a conviction followed by a papal pardon were widespread even before the trial began. Dressed in a light suit, the former butler showed little emotion during the last day of the week-long proceedings. “Nobody knows what he’s feeling inside, but externally he was impassive,” said one of the eight journalists who were admitted to courtroom on behalf of the assembled press corps, on the condition that they remain anonymous in their personal accounts. At the end of the trial, the president of the court asked the former butler whether he felt innocent or guilty. Gabriele responded, “The thing that I feel strongly inside me is the conviction of having acted out of exclusive—I’d say visceral—love for the church of Christ and its visible head [the Pope]. … I don’t feel like a thief.”

In his closing arguments, the Vatican prosecutor Nicola Picardi urged that Gabriele be sentenced to three years in prison and banned for life from employment in any office where he could commit a similar crime. In her response, Gabriele’s attorney Cristiana Arru sought to cast doubt on the rigor of Vatican investigators. The butler, she argued, had only photocopied documents—he hadn’t removed them from the control of their rightful owners—and thus could not be guilty of theft. But the real mitigating factor, she argued, was that Gabriele had been acting in good faith. “You could see that his motivation was to do something positive for the church, not damage it” she said. “He thought that the holy father wasn’t sufficiently informed.” She closed by requesting that the charges be reduced to misappropriation or that failing that, that Gabriele be given the minimum sentence. “What he did is condemnable,” she added.” But he was compelled by the evil that he saw.”

(MORE: The Vatican Scandals: What Did the Pope’s Butler Know?)

Speaking to journalists after the trial, Lombardi twice stressed that despite statements by Gabriele before his arrest that “at least 20 people” were involved in the scandal, Picardi had found no evidence that the butler had acted in concord with others. “The important thing is that there was no proof of accomplices,” said Lombardi. Only one other person is currently facing charges in relation to the case, a computer specialist employed by the Vatican named Claudio Sciarpelletti, who stands accused of harboring documents and giving them to the butler. Lombardi said he expected his trial would take place in November.

The judges deliberated for two hours before returning with the sentence: three years in prison, reduced to one and half. Among the mitigating factors cited was Gabriele’s clean record, his years of previous service and his motivation for acting, which “though erroneous,” contributed to the reduction in his sentence. Gabriele was also ordered to pay the court costs.

Gabriele is to remain in house arrest during the three days in which his lawyer can appeal the ruling. In closed circuit footage piped into the room in the Vatican where journalists were watching the sentencing, Gabriele could be seen being led from the courtroom. As he passed in front of the camera, there was a moment when he seemed to turn towards the public and smile.

MORE: The Pope’s Butler Testifies: Innocent of Theft, Guilty of Betrayal?