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'Vatileaks' trial of pope's ex-butler opens in Vatican City

The pope's former butler has gone on trial for allegedly stealing confidential Vatican papers and leaking them to the media. If convicted, the former aide could face four years in an Italian jail.

Pope Benedict XVI's former aide, Paolo Gabriele has gone on trial for aggravated theft in the Vatican City on Saturday.

At the time of his arrest in May 2012, the former papal butler confessed to leaking confidential Vatican papers to the media in what Gabriele told investigators was an attempt to clean up corruption within the Roman Catholic Church and that he believed "a shock could be a healthy thing to bring the Church back on the right track."

Gabriele, a once loyal assistant, said he saw himself as a whistle-blowing "agent of the Holy Spirit" as he grew to become disgusted by the "evil and corruption" he witnessed within inner papal ranks.

Prosecutors will allege Gabriele met with investigative reporter Gianluigi Nuzzi earlier this year and gave him copies of the documents which were then widely published across international media outlets.

Power struggle exposed

The allegedly leaked documents pointed to a power struggle at the highest level of the church and offer an insight into the workings of the Holy See.

Perhaps the most notorious of the letters made public, one written to Benedict by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigana, currently the Vatican's ambassador to Washington, who was deputy governor of Vatican City at the time.

Vigana complained about corruption, nepotism and cronyism linked to the awarding of contracts to outside companies at amplified prices when he took on the role in 2009.

In a subsequent letter, Vigana alleges he was removed from his post for attempting to tackle widespread corruption within the church.

Pope upset by case

A spokesperson for the Vatican said the 85-year-old pontiff is hurt by the betrayal of confidence by someone he "knew, loved and respected."

Gabriele has admitted to the charge of aggravated theft and if convicted by the three member tribunal panel, the 46-year-old could face a prison sentence of up to four years.

Television cameras have been banned from the courtroom and only 10 journalists are allowed to attend the hearing.

The papal state has no prison system, meaning if convicted, Gabriele would serve time in an Italian jail, however it is expected the pope will pardon him.

The hearing is taking place in a 19th century courtroom behind the apse of St Peter's basilica.

It is unclear how long the trial will last.

Computer expert Claudio Sciarpelletti is charged with aiding and abetting the former assistant.

jlw/ipj (AFP, Reuters)

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