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Trial of pope's former butler over leaked papers gets under way

Vincenzo Pinto/AFP - Getty Images

This file picture taken on Oct. 10, 2006 shows Pope Benedict XVI with his then butler Paolo Gabriele (right) in St Peter's Square, Rome.

VATICAN CITY - One of the most sensational trials to be held in the Vatican for centuries got under way Saturday with Benedict XVI’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, standing accused of leaking confidential documents from the pope’s apartments to the media.

Some of the documents suggested the existence of a web of corruption, nepotism and cronyism linked to the awarding of contracts for the maintenance of the Vatican estate. Others showed signs of widespread infighting among cardinals. 

Gabriele could be given a sentence of up to four years in prison if found guilty of “aggravated theft.”  

The Vatican State does not actually have a prison -- only security cells for temporary confinement. But, according to a 1929 agreement with “neighboring” Italy, anyone sentenced in the Vatican will serve their time there.

Vatican says the 'butler did it,' orders trial

The public trial is taking place in the Vatican’s tribunal, a small courtroom in a 19th century building in Piazza San Marta.

Gabiele was in the courtroom Saturday, dressed in a gray suit. Journalists in the small pool allowed in the room said he looked tense but laughed with his lawyer at one stage. He did not betray any other emotions.

The judges said it would be a short trial, and could be over in as little as four hearings, meaning that a verdict could be reached by the end of next week.

At the hearing, which only lasted two hours, it emerged the documents and IT material seized from the butler's house filled 82 boxes, though this does not mean all of it was confidential. 

“Vatileaks,” as the case has become known, is expected to be the biggest trial held by world’s smallest state for centuries.

“Vatican judges usually have to deal with a maximum of 30 crimes per year,” Professor Giovanni Giacobbe, a Vatican legal expert, told journalists Thursday. “Mostly petty crimes like pickpocketing that are dealt with within a day.”

Pope Benedict's butler, Paolo Gabriele, has been arrested for stealing confidential documents and leaking papal secrets. The Vatican says this is "the beginning of a large investigation." NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

The biggest crime to emerge from St. Peter’s Square in recent memory -- the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981 -- was tried in an Italian court, while the 1998 killing of a Swiss Guard commander and his wife never went to trial as the Swiss Guard who pulled the trigger turned the gun on himself.

The Vatican’s penal law is based on an Italian code, which dates back to 1889.

Unlike in the United States and other countries, a defendant here is not required to enter a plea, “like they do in Perry Mason,” Giacobbe joked.

Pope Benedict: 'Sadness in my heart' over butler leak scandal

Defendants are also not asked to take an oath before testifying.

Gabriele, a 46-year-old father of three, has already admitted his role in the conspiracy, and may now pray his confession will lead to a reduced sentence or even a papal pardon.

He was one of the very few people to have access to the pope’s private chambers and was caught red-handed when a stash of secret documents was found in his apartment, along with a cheque of $130,000, a rare 16th century edition of the Aeneid and a gold nugget, all presents sent to the Pope.

He was held for 53 days in a Vatican cell before being put under house arrest.

Gabriele confessed and claimed “he felt like an agent of the Holy Spirit,” seeking to expose and root out the "evil and corruption" in the Catholic church.