By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict made a surprise pre-Christmas visit to the jail holding his former butler on Saturday and pardoned him for stealing and leaking documents that alleged corruption in the Holy See.
The pope and Paolo Gabriele spent about 15 minutes together before Gabriele was freed and allowed to return to his family in their Vatican apartment, a Vatican spokesman said.
Gabriele was convicted of aggravated theft on October 6 in a case that shone unwelcome publicity on the Vatican and had been serving an 18-month sentence in a jail cell in the city state's police headquarters.
"This was a paternal gesture towards a person with whom the pope shared his daily life for several years," Father Federico Lombardi, a spokesman, said.
"This is a happy ending in this Christmas season," he said.
Gabriele was arrested in May after Vatican police found many documents in his possession that had been stolen from the pope's office.
The former butler gave them to the media in what mushroomed into an embarrassing scandal for Benedict's pontificate that became known as "Vatileaks".
Gabriele told investigators he had leaked the documents because he saw "evil and corruption everywhere in the Church" and that information was being hidden from the pope.
The Vatican said the pope had also pardoned a second Vatican employee, Claudio Sciarpelletti, who was convicted in a separate trial of helping Gabriele and given a two month suspended sentence.
Gabriele will no longer be able to work in the Vatican but will be helped to find a job and start a new life outside its walls together with his family, the Vatican said.
Gabriele, 46, told the court that convicted him at the trial - one of the most sensational in the recent history of the Holy See - that he did not consider himself a thief and that he had done what he did out of "visceral" love for the Church.
In one of the most dramatic betrayals of trust in Vatican history, Gabriele, who served the pope his meals and helped him dress, photocopied sensitive documents under the nose of his immediate superiors in a small office adjacent to the papal living quarters in the Apostolic Palace.
He then hid more than 1,000 copies and original documents, including some the pope had marked "to be destroyed," among many thousands of other papers and old newspaper clippings in a huge armoire in the family apartment inside the Vatican walls.
A former member of the small, select group known as "the papal family", Gabriele was one of fewer than 10 people who had a key to an elevator leading directly to the pope's apartments.
He said during the trial that from his perch as papal butler he was able to see how easily a powerful man could be manipulated by aides and kept in the dark about things he should have known.
In the course of the trial, intimate details emerged of the inner workings of an institution long renowned for its secrecy.
The documents Gabriele leaked triggered one of the biggest crises of Pope Benedict's papacy when they emerged in a muckraking expose by an Italian journalist earlier this year.
The case was all the more embarrassing for the Vatican because it came at a time when it was trying to limit the reputational fallout from a series of scandals involving sexual abuse of minors by clerics around the world as well as from mismanagement at its bank.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Andrew Osborn)