VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict's former butler went on trial on Saturday for using his intimate access to the pope's desk to steal and leak explosive documents in what he said was an attempt to clean up corruption in the Vatican.
The 46-year-old Paolo Gabriele, who served the pope his meals and helped him dress, was being tried along with a Vatican computer expert in the city state's little-used tribunal, a small, wood-panelled room with a papal emblem on its ceiling.
Gabriele was arrested in May after police found confidential documents in his apartment inside the Vatican, throwing a global media spotlight on an institution battling to defend its reputation from allegations of graft.
A three-judge panel will decide the fate of Gabriele, whom the pope used to call "Paoletto" (little Paul), now described in Vatican documents as "the defendant".
The self-styled whistle-blower, who says he was trying to expose graft at the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, is charged with aggravated theft for stealing and leaking the pontiff's personal papers, and could be jailed for four years.
Only eight journalists were allowed into the courtroom, and these were due to brief other reporters after the end of the first session, which was expected to last up to three hours.
According to an indictment last August, Gabriele told investigators he had acted because he saw "evil and corruption everywhere in the Church" and wanted to help root it out "because the pope was not sufficiently informed".
The documents pointed to a power struggle at the Church's highest levels.
Gabriele, who said he saw himself as an "agent of the Holy Spirit", is widely expected to be found guilty because he has confessed.
"He has done harm by leaking this information because there will always be somebody who will take advantage of these things to denigrate the Church," said Rome resident Sergio Caldari in Saint Peter's Square.
Another local onlooker, Giovanni Maisto, said he was hopeful that the trial could mark "a new dimension of openness and transparency" in the Church's affairs.
The trial will be based on a 19th-century Italian penal code. Claudio Sciarpelletti, the computer expert charged with aiding and abetting Gabriele, could be jailed for up to a year.
It is not clear how long the trial might last.
Gabriele, a father of three who lived a simple but comfortable life in the city-state, told investigators after his arrest in May that he believed a shock "could be a healthy thing to bring the Church back on the right track".
His arrest capped nearly five months of intrigue and suspense after a string of documents and private letters found their way into the Italian media.
The most notorious of the letters were written to the pope by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, currently the Vatican's ambassador to Washington, who was deputy governor of the Vatican City at the time.
In one, Vigano complains that when he took office in 2009, he discovered corruption, nepotism and cronyism linked to the awarding of contracts to outside companies at inflated prices.
Vigano later wrote to the pope about a smear campaign against him by other Vatican officials who were upset that he had taken drastic steps to clean up the purchasing procedures.
Despite begging not to be moved away, Vigano was later transferred to Washington by Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, effectively the Vatican's prime minister.
Since the papal state has no prison, Gabriele would serve time in an Italian jail, though the pope is widely expected to pardon him. (additional reporting by Gavin Jones and Eleanor Biles; Editing by Kevin Liffey)