Pope's ex-butler gets 18 months in prison for leaking confidential papers

ROME (CNN) -- The pope's former butler, Paolo Gabriele, was convicted Saturday of aggravated theft for leaking confidential papal documents and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

He was also ordered to pay the costs of the trial at the Vatican City courthouse

The case is the biggest to go before the Vatican court in decades. It has been the subject of intense interest because a book based on the leaked papers revealed claims of corruption within the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.

Gabriele defended his actions as having a moral objective in his final remarks before the jury of three lay judges retired to consider its verdict.

"I feel strongly the conviction inside of me that I did it because of my overwhelming love, I would say visceral, for the Church of Christ and for its visible leader," he told the court. " I repeat, I don't feel like a thief."

Public prosecutor Nicola Picardi had asked the jury to sentence Gabriele to three years in prison for the offense.

But defense lawyer Cristiana Arru, who called for the jury to reduce the theft charge to a lesser offense, told the court that while her client's actions were illegal, they were the result of "the evil he saw" within the Church.

Arru told the court that Gabriele's actions were morally motivated and that she hoped that "one day they will be recognized and applauded."

Gabriele's father was in court Saturday to hear the final arguments.

The court heard this week how police found more than 1,000 important documents among a stash of hundreds of thousands of papers in Gabriele's apartments in the Vatican City and Castel Gondolfo, a town near Rome.

Among them were original papers signed by Pope Benedict, some of them stamped with an order for destruction, according to a briefing from the small pool of journalists allowed to attend the trial in a Vatican courthouse.

In his testimony Tuesday, the former butler declared himself not guilty of a charge of aggravated theft in connection with the leaked documents -- but said he had abused the pope's trust.

He told how he had photocopied many confidential papal papers, saying he did so because he wanted to expose wrongdoing and corruption.

Gabriele has previously admitted taking hundreds of secret documents from the pope's personal apartment and passing them to an Italian journalist.

He faced up to eight years in an Italian prison for the charge of aggravated theft.

Prison terms handed down by the court are served in the Italian prison system under an agreement between the Vatican City-state and Italy.

Gabriele was arrested in May, following a Vatican investigation into how the pope's private documents appeared in the best-selling book "Sua Santita" ("His Holiness"), by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi.

Corruption claims resulting from the book's publication, based on the leaked materials, rocked the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and could even affect who becomes the next pope.