09/29/2012 09:11 am ET

Paolo Gabriele, Pope's Former Butler, To Face Trial On Saturday

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The Vatican's most sensational trial since the end of the Inquisition might end fairly quickly -- and with a surprisingly light sentence.

Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict's former personal butler, goes to trial on Saturday (Sept. 29) for stealing the pontiff's private papers and leaking them to the press. His crime proved a global embarrassment for the Vatican, revealing infighting and allegations of corruption among the secretive top echelons of the Catholic Church.

But, according to professor Giovanni Giacobbe, a Vatican's prosecutor, a conviction carries a maximum jail term of only four years in the lenient legal system of the world's smallest state.

Gabriele was arrested by Vatican police on May 23, and will be tried for "aggravated theft" together with Claudio Sciarpelletti, a computer technician at the Vatican's Secretariat of State who has been charged with aiding and abetting Gabriele.

After being granted house arrest in late June, Gabriele still lives under surveillance inside the Vatican walls with his wife and three children. Because his job required constant contact with the pope, Gabriele was one of the few lay people to be granted Vatican citizenship and residency.

Gabriele confessed to his crime and, if convicted, would have to serve time in an Italian prison since the Vatican doesn't have its own jail. But many Vatican watchers assume that Benedict would pardon him after the sentence.

During a briefing with reporters on Thursday (Sept. 27), Vatican prosecutor Giacobbe stressed that the Vatican tribunal's three lay judges are "independent" and not subject to any pressure from church authorities.

"Of course, the pope could decide to intervene at any moment, but so far he has chosen not to," he said.

The butler's trial will put an unprecedented spotlight on the Vatican's small legal system. Created in 1929 with the birth of the Vatican City State, Giacobbe explained that the tribunal uses Italy's 1913 "liberal" crime law. Pope Pius XI chose this code over the much more restrictive one introduced by the Fascist regime, which was considered "not in line" with Catholic values.

According to Giacobbe, the small Vatican tribunal usually handles around 30 cases per year, "mostly for petty crimes such as pickpocketing in St. Peter's square." In the past, other high-profile Vatican crimes, such as the 1998 killing of the commander of the Swiss Guards, never actually went to trial.

While it is impossible to predict the trial's duration, Giacobbe stressed that the Vatican legal system doesn't require cross-examining all witnesses in court. "If neither the prosecutor nor the defendant raise any particular objections or issues, the trial could wrap up quickly," he said.

Only eight journalists will be allowed in the small, wood-paneled courtroom to cover the trial on a pool basis. No cameras or recording equipment will be permitted.

The trial could shed light on the motives of Gabriele's unprecedented breach of the pope's trust. According to the the 20-page indictment by Vatican judge Piero Antonio Bonnet, the former butler told prosecutors that he was convinced that "evil and corruption" were "everywhere" in the church, and that he acted as an "infiltrator" of the Holy Spirit.

His actions led to the publication of several confidential Vatican documents, including some in the pope's own handwriting, in the best-selling book "Sua Santita" ("His Holiness") by journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi and in other Italian newspapers.

While it seems clear that Gabriele played a key role in stealing many of the documents and carrying them outside of the Vatican, few Vatican observers think that Gabriele acted alone.

According to the indictment, several unnamed sources, identified only with the letters "W" and "X," supplied him with confidential documents. The former butler himself, in a television interview with Nuzzi taped before his arrest, boasted that "around 20 people across the Vatican" were sympathetic with his actions.

The Vatican prosecutors' investigation on the diffusion of the documents and other potential charges such as "attempting against the state's security" is still ongoing. A parallel investigation led by three cardinals on Benedict's orders has completed its work but its findings are still unknown.

According to Giacobbe, the pope could decide to supply the tribunal with the cardinals' final report but he isn't obliged to.