Elisabetta Povoledo

VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict XVI’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, went on trial Saturday on charges of stealing the pope’s confidential papers and leaking them to the press, an unprecedented security breach that set off an embarrassingly public airing of back-room intrigue and allegations of corruption at an institution known for its secrecy.

Gabriele appeared tired but serene throughout the two-hour hearing, which was held in a sparsely furnished, wood-paneled courtroom in a Vatican City palazzo behind the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The morning was taken up with legal formalities, and the civil court — formed by a panel of three judges — upheld motions to strike some of the evidence gathered against Gabriele and to split off the trial of a co-defendant, a Vatican computer expert charged with aiding and abetting.

A spokesman for the Vatican, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the atmosphere in the courtroom was “serene.” Television cameras and recording equipment were not admitted, and a pool of eight reporters allowed inside briefed other journalists after the hearing.

Gabriele, who has admitted taking the documents, faces up to four years in prison if he is convicted of aggravated theft. He is scheduled to take the stand at a hearing Tuesday.

The trial of Gabriele, 46, caps a turbulent moment for the Roman Catholic Church, racked by a pedophilia scandal involving some of its clergymen, interfaith and intrafaith disputes, and challenges to preserve its moral authoritativeness within rapidly changing societies.

Some of the leaked documents opened an especially unflattering vista onto some questionable administrative practices as well as inner wrangling at the Vatican.

Court records show that Gabriele told the judge examining the case that he saw “evil and corruption everywhere in the church,” and believed that he had to expose it because the pope “was not correctly informed” about what was going on. The shock of public exposure, he told investigators, “could be a healthy thing to bring the church back on the right track.”

This is the highest-profile court case in years to take place in a tribunal that has preserved the procedures of a 19th-century Italian penal code and handles only a few dozen, mostly insignificant, cases a year.