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Former Vatican butler Paolo Gabriele meets Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican City prison Saturday, as seen in this handout photo released by the Osservatore Romano.
VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict made a surprise pre-Christmas visit to the jail holding his former butler on Saturday and pardoned him for stealing and leaking documents that alleged corruption in the Holy See.
The pope and Paolo Gabriele spent about 15 minutes together before Gabriele was freed and allowed to return to his family in their Vatican apartment, a Vatican spokesman said.
Gabriele was convicted of aggravated theft on Oct. 6 in a case that shone unwelcome publicity on the Vatican and had been serving an 18-month sentence in a jail cell in the city state's police headquarters.
"This was a paternal gesture towards a person with whom the pope shared his daily life for several years," Father Federico Lombardi, a spokesman, said.
"This is a happy ending in this Christmas season," he said.
Gabriele was arrested in May after Vatican police found many documents in his possession that had been stolen from the pope's office.
The former butler gave them to the media in what mushroomed into an embarrassing scandal for Benedict's pontificate that became known as "Vatileaks."
The pope's once-trusted butler, Paulo Gabriele, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for his part in leaking private Vatican documents. NBC's Duncan Golestani reports.
Gabriele told investigators he had leaked the documents because he saw "evil and corruption everywhere in the Church" and that information was being hidden from the pope.
The Vatican said the pope had also pardoned a second Vatican employee, Claudio Sciarpelletti, who was convicted in a separate trial of helping Gabriele and given a two month suspended sentence.
Gabriele will no longer be able to work in the Vatican but will be helped to find a job and start a new life outside its walls together with his family, the Vatican said.
Gabriele, 46, told the court that convicted him at the trial - one of the most sensational in the recent history of the Holy See - that he did not consider himself a thief and that he had done what he did out of "visceral" love for the Church.
In one of the most dramatic betrayals of trust in Vatican history, Gabriele, who served the pope his meals and helped him dress, photocopied sensitive documents under the nose of his immediate superiors in a small office adjacent to the papal living quarters in the Apostolic Palace.
He then hid more than 1,000 copies and original documents, including some the pope had marked "to be destroyed," among many thousands of other papers and old newspaper clippings in a huge armoire in the family apartment inside the Vatican walls.
A former member of the small, select group known as "the papal family", Gabriele was one of fewer than 10 people who had a key to an elevator leading directly to the pope's apartments.
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