VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday pardoned Paolo Gabriele, his former butler who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing secret papal memos, but banished the once-loyal servant from the Vatican forever.
“This morning the Holy Father Benedict XVI visited Paolo Gabriele in prison in order to confirm his forgiveness and to inform him personally of his acceptance of Mr. Gabriele’s request for pardon,” the Vatican said in a statement.
The official pardon for Gabriele, who was convicted and sentenced in October by a Vatican court for leaking secret papal documents to the press, was a “paternal gesture” for a man “with whom the pope shared a relationship of daily familiarity for many years.”
However, the former butler “cannot resume his previous occupation or continue to live in Vatican City,” the statement added.
After a 15-minute meeting with Benedict, Gabriele returned home to his wife and three children, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
He had spent more than three months in detention.
“It is great news, the end of a sad affair,” Lombardi said.
He likened the meeting between the pontiff and his betrayer to a prison encounter in 1983 between late Pope John Paul II and Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk who had attempted to assassinate him two years earlier. The tone was intimate, he said.
A former trusted aide who spent several hours a day in the pontiff’s company, the 46-year-old Gabriele — one of the 594 citizens of the world’s smallest state — will now have to move out of his home within the Vatican’s walls.
“The Holy See, trusting in his sincere repentance, wishes to offer him the possibility of returning to a serene family life,” the Vatican said.
Gabriele, one of the few lay members of the “pontifical family,” leaked the sensitive memos to the press as part of a whistle-blowing campaign against what he called “evil and corruption” in the Vatican.
None of the leaked documents threatened the papacy. Most were of interest only to Italians, as they concerned relations between Italy and the Vatican and a few local scandals and personalities. Their main aim appeared to be to discredit Benedict’s trusted No. 2, the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Many religious observers had thought it unlikely that the Vatican would expel Gabriele because of the risk that he would be free to reveal further secrets.
“It’s still not clear what the fate of the main protagonist of Vatileaks will be,” religious watcher Andrea Torinelli wrote in the “Vatican Insider,” a sister publication of the daily La Stampa.
“He could be destined for a role in a context linked to the Vatican,” he said, although “the Holy See will expect him to keep mum on the years spent in the papal apartments.”
Many hope that Gabriele’s freedom may allow him to reveal whether the leaks were orchestrated by higher powers.
The butler told Italian investigative journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, who published the leaks, that there were “around 20″ like-minded people in the Vatican — sparking rumors that disgruntled cardinals may have been behind the leaks. Technically the criminal investigation remains open, and few in the Vatican believe Gabriele could have constructed such a plot without at least the endorsement of others.
There was much talk of a power struggle between Bertone and his opponents — although Gabriele told the court he worked alone.
The documents, secretly copied and leaked in a case that has been dubbed “Vatileaks,” included allegations by a former governor of the city state of massive fraud within its walls.
Vatican police said they had found more than 1,000 secret documents, some photocopies but others originals, in Gabriele’s home, that had been stolen from the papal palace.
These included letters from cardinals and politicians and papers the pontiff himself had marked “to be destroyed.”
Gabriele had said he wanted to “help” the pope who, he claimed, had been kept in ignorance of scandals inside the Vatican.
He expressed frustration with a culture of secrecy in the Vatican — from the mysterious disappearance of the daughter of a Vatican employee in 1983 to a quickly hushed-up double murder and suicide by a Swiss guard in 1998.
While the disgraced butler was initially given a three-year jail term, the presiding judge reduced the sentence on the grounds of his past service to the Catholic Church and his apology to the pope for betraying him.
The butler’s accomplice, a computer programmer who was convicted in November of helping Gabriele engineer the leaks, will also be pardoned, Lombardi said.
Claudio Sciarpelletti, who was given a two-month suspended sentence and a five-year probation in November, has already resumed working at the Vatican.