Pope Benedict XVI has returned to the Vatican in time for the trial of his former butler, who is accused of theft (AP)
Pope Benedict XVI has returned to the Vatican after three months on holiday to find his former butler on trial in one of the most damaging scandals of his pontificate: the leaks of stolen papal correspondence detailing power struggles, defamation campaigns and allegations of corruption at the highest level of the Catholic Church.
Paolo Gabriele is to be questioned by the president of the Vatican tribunal, the first time the public will hear from the butler himself about the events that landed him in a Vatican detention facility on May 23, accused of stealing the documents and giving them to a journalist.
Vatican police arrested Gabriele after they found a stash of papal papers in his Vatican City home. In all, police carted off 82 boxes of papers, though not all of them were papal correspondence.
Prosecutors have said Gabriele confessed to leaking copies of the documents because he wanted to expose the "evil and corruption" in the church.
They quoted him as saying that even though he knew taking the documents was wrong, he felt inspired by the Holy Spirit "to bring the church back on the right track".
"I believed that the Holy Father wasn't being correctly informed about certain things," they quoted him as saying. "In this sense, I was compelled also by my profound faith and desire that there should be light shed on everything in the church."
Judge Giuseppe Della Torre has said he expects it to be over in about four more hearings. Gabriele, a 46-year-old father of three, faces four years in prison if convicted on a charge of aggravated theft.
As an absolute monarch, Benedict has full judicial authority in the Vatican city state and can intervene to stop a trial. He delegates that power to the three-judge tribunal, but he can pardon Gabriele and most expect he will if there is a conviction.
In its first hearing, the court released the list of witnesses who will testify in the case, though it is not clear who among them might do so after Gabriele. They include the pope's private secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, and one of the four consecrated women who care for the papal household, Cristina Cernetti.
Gabriele has said he handed the documentation off to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, whose book His Holiness: The secret papers of Pope Benedict XVI, was published to great fanfare in May. An earlier Nuzzi book, Vatican SpA, was based on a trove of damaging documents from the Vatican bank.