The pope's butler has been convicted of stealing the pontiff's private documents and leaking them to a journalist, and has been sentenced to 18 months in jail.

Judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre read the verdict aloud Saturday one hour after the three-judge panel began deliberating Paolo Gabriele's fate.

Gabriele, 46, was accused of stealing the pope's private correspondence and passing it onto journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi.

Nuzzi wrote a book, His Holiness: Pope Benedict XVI's Secret Papers, revealing the intrigue, petty infighting and allegations of corruption and homosexual liaisons that plague the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.

The book has convulsed the Vatican for months and prompted an unprecedented response, with the pope naming a commission of cardinals to investigate the origin of the leaks, alongside Vatican magistrates.

In her closing arguments, defence lawyer Cristiana Arru insisted that only photocopies, not original documents, were taken from the Apostolic Palace, disputing testimony from the pope's secretary who said he saw original letters in the evidence seized from Gabriele's home.

Arru admitted Gabriele's gesture was "condemnable" but said it was a misappropriation of documents, not theft, and that as a result Gabriele should serve no time for the lesser crime.

82 boxes of papers removed from apartment

Police said 82 moving boxes of papers were carted out of Gabriele's Vatican City apartment last May, though only about 1,000 pages were pertinent to the investigation.

During the trial, Gabriele detailed how he would photocopy papal correspondence in broad daylight, using the office photocopier in the presence of the pope's two private secretaries.

He pleaded innocent to the charge of aggravated theft but said he was guilty of "having betrayed the trust of the Holy Father, whom I love as a son would."

'The thing I feel strongly in me is the conviction that I acted out of exclusive love, I would say visceral love, for the church of Christ and its visible head'—Paolo Gabriele

The motive wasn't discussed during the trial, but Gabriele told prosecutors that he thought that exposing the "evil and corruption" that he saw around him would help the Roman Catholic Church reform.

Defence lawyer Cristiana Arru focused much of her questioning of defence witnesses on the search of Gabriele's home: Police said 82 moving boxes of papers were carted out of Gabriele's Vatican City apartment on May 23, though only about 1,000 pages were pertinent to the investigation.

Police have said that contrary to Gabriele's initial claims, the documentation contained originals, not just photocopies of papal correspondence. The originals were distinguished by the seals, stamps and internal processing codes used in the Vatican, they said.

In his final appeal to the court Saturday morning, Gabriele insisted he never intended to hurt the church or the pope.

"The thing I feel strongly in me is the conviction that I acted out of exclusive love, I would say visceral love, for the church of Christ and its visible head," Gabriele told the court in a steady voice. "I do not feel like a thief."

Papal pardon 'likely'

The sentence was reduced in half to 18 months from three years because of a series of mitigating circumstances, including that Gabriele had no previous record, had acknowledged that he had betrayed the pope and was convinced, "albeit erroneously," that he was doing the right thing, Dalla Torre said.

Gabriele has been held in house arrest at his apartment since July after spending his first two months in a Vatican detention room.

He was also ordered to pay court costs.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the possibility of a papal pardon was "concrete, likely" and that the pope would now study the court file and decide. He said there was no way to know when a papal pardon might be announced.

In fact, the pope was both victim and supreme judge in this case. As an absolute monarch of the tiny Vatican City state, Benedict wields full executive, legislative and judicial power. He delegates that power, though, and Lombardi said the trial showed the complete independence of the Vatican judiciary.