[PHOTO -Pope Benedict XVI has pardoned his former butler, Paolo Gabriele, who is serving an 18-month jail sentence for stealing confidential papers. The Pope visited Gabriele in prison to personally inform him of the decision, the Vatican said in a statement. In October the former butler was found guilty of stealing and copying the Pope's documents and leaking them to an Italian journalist. Gabriele said he acted out of love for the Church.]

VATICAN CITY, DECEMBER 24, 2012 (PHILSTAR) (AP) Pope Benedict XVI granted his former butler a Christmas pardon yesterday, forgiving him in person during a jailhouse meeting for stealing and leaking his private papers in one of the gravest Vatican security breaches in recent times.

After the 15-minute meeting, Paolo Gabriele was freed and returned to his Vatican City apartment where he lives with his wife and three children. The Vatican said he couldn't continue living or working in the Vatican, but said it would find him housing and a job elsewhere soon.

"This is a paternal gesture toward someone with whom the pope for many years shared daily life," according to a statement from the Vatican secretariat of state.

The pardon closes a painful and embarrassing chapter for the Vatican, capping a sensational, Hollywood-like scandal that exposed power struggles, intrigue and allegations of corruption and homosexual liaisons in the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

Gabriele, 46, was arrested May 23 after Vatican police found what they called an "enormous" stash of papal documents in his Vatican City apartment. He was convicted of aggravated theft by a Vatican tribunal on Oct. 6 and has been serving his 18-month sentence in the Vatican police barracks.

He told Vatican investigators he gave the documents to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi because he thought the 85-year-old pope wasn't being informed of the "evil and corruption" in the Vatican and thought that exposing it publicly would put the church back on the right track.

During the trial, Gabriele testified that he loved the pope "as a son loves his father" and said he never meant to hurt the pontiff or the church. A photograph taken during the meeting yesterday — the first between Benedict and his once trusted butler since his arrest — showed Gabriele dressed in his typical dark gray suit, smiling.

The publication of the leaked documents, first on Italian television then in Nuzzi's book "His Holiness: Pope Benedict XVI's Secret Papers" convulsed the Vatican all year, a devastating betrayal of the pope from within his papal family that exposed the unseemly side of the Catholic Church's governance.

The papal pardon had been widely expected before Christmas, and the jailhouse meeting Benedict used to personally deliver it recalled the image of Pope John Paul II visiting Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who shot him in 1981, while he served his sentence in an Italian prison.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the meeting was "intense" and "personal" and said that during it Benedict "communicated to him in person that he had accepted his request for pardon, commuting his sentence."

Lombardi said the Vatican hoped the Benedict's pardon and Gabriele's freedom would allow the Holy See to return to work "in an atmosphere of serenity."

None of the leaked documents threatened the papacy. Most were of interest only to Italians, as they concerned relations between Italy and the Vatican and a few local scandals and personalities. Their main aim appeared to be to discredit Benedict's trusted No. 2, the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Vatican officials have said the theft, though, shattered the confidentiality that typically governs correspondence with the pope. Cardinals, bishops and everyday laymen write to him about spiritual and practical matters assuming that their words will be treated with the discretion for which the Holy See is known.

As a result, the leaks prompted a remarkable reaction, with the pope naming a commission of three cardinals to investigate alongside Vatican prosecutors. Italian news reports have said new security measures and personnel checks have been put in place to prevent a repeat offense.

Gabriele insisted he acted alone, with no accomplices, but it remains an open question whether any other heads will roll. Technically the criminal investigation remains open, and few in the Vatican believe Gabriele could have construed such a plot without at least the endorsement if not the outright help of others. But Lombardi said he had no new information to release about any new investigative leads, saying the pardon "closed a sad and painful chapter" for the Holy See.

Nuzzi, who has supported Gabriele as a hero for having exposed corruption in the Vatican, tweeted yesterday that it appeared the butler was thrilled to speak with the pope and go home. "Unending joy for him, but the problems of the curia and power remain," he wrote, referring to the Vatican bureaucracy.

A Vatican computer expert, Claudio Sciarpelletti, was convicted Nov. 10 of aiding and abetting Gabriele by changing his testimony to Vatican investigators about the origins of an envelope with Gabriele's name on it that was found in his desk. His two-month sentence was suspended. Lombardi said a pardon was expected for him as well. He recently returned to work in the Vatican.

Benedict met this past week with the cardinals who investigated the origins of the leaks, but it wasn't known if they provided him with any further updates or were merely meeting ahead of the expected pardon for Gabriele.

As supreme executive, legislator and judge in Vatican City, the pope had the power to pardon Gabriele at any time. The only question was when.


Prince William spends Christmas with in-laws

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will spend Christmas at the Middleton home rather than with the Queen at Sandringham, it has been announced.

Prince William and his pregnant wife will celebrate Christmas at Catherine's family home in Bucklebury, Berkshire, a Clarence House spokesman said.

The decision has been taken with the approval of the Queen.

The couple are also planning a visit to the Sandringham Estate, in Norfolk, during the festive period.

They spent last Christmas there with other members of the Royal Family.

The decision to spend this Christmas Day with the Middleton family was taken before it was announced Catherine was pregnant.

Earlier this month the duchess spent three days in hospital after suffering severe morning sickness, hyperemesis gravidarum, which leaves expectant mothers unable to keep food or liquids down.

She was then ordered by doctors to have a period of rest at home at Kensington Palace, which meant she missed some engagements.

BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt said that according to Catherine's sister Pippa, Christmas at the Middletons involved the girls' father appearing in fancy dress. "One year he bought an inflatable sumo outfit," our correspondent reported.

Flocking to Finland to visit Santa Claus in Lapland By Mark Bosworth 21 December 2012 Last updated at 19:57 ET BBC World Service

[PHOTO - THE REAL SANTA: As all children know, there is only one Santa Claus. So many people travel all the way to Lapland in northern Finland to see Santa in his own home - but it is not just the youngsters who are excited.]

As soon as I land at Rovaniemi airport, a giant screen informs me that I am at the official airport of Santa Claus.

At the baggage carousel, toy reindeer and bears form a winter's scene, while fluffy snowy owls stare down at the passing suitcases as if they were prey.

The rustling sound of waterproof jackets fill the air as families in the latest winter gear prepare to step outside into temperatures of -20C.

People from all over the world are here - the UK, Spain, China, Japan, Australia, and Mexico. Like me, they all want to see Santa Claus.

The official Santa Claus Village - a 10-minute bus ride away - is a collection of buildings made of stone and local pine wood, straddling the Arctic Circle.

A long queue of excited and expectant children - and adults - wait outside Santa's Grotto for the chance to meet him. Others have already seen him.

"Santa was like a ginormous giant," yells 5-year-old Lily. "He had big shoes and he ate porridge for breakfast."

Lily and her mum, Tania, are Australians living in London. Tania says she feels like a child again. "It is like living a dream through my daughter's eyes. It is something I would have wanted to do as a child."

Continue reading the main story From Our Own Correspondent Insight and analysis from BBC correspondents, journalists and writers from around the world Broadcast on Radio 4 and BBC World Service Listen to the programme Download the programme

Then 39-year-old Esmond from Hong Kong emerges from the grotto with his girlfriend, Tiffany, who is beaming.

She holds up her hand to reveal a ring on her wedding finger. "This has been my dream for a long time," she says. "But I did not realise Esmond was going to propose in front of Santa."

Esmond tells me that Santa Claus has always had a special meaning for him, which is why he got down on one knee in the grotto.

The proposal was captured on video by an elf so - for 50 euros (£40) - the happy couple have bought a memory stick of the moment, which they plan to show their future children.

In the early 1900s, Rovaniemi bustled with loggers and lumberjacks who stopped over in its bars and restaurants.

Towards the end of World War II, retreating German soldiers destroyed the city, burning every building in sight.

Famous Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto redesigned the city in the shape of reindeer antlers - although it is impossible to distinguish these at ground level.

The first sign marking the Arctic Circle was erected in the 1920s, but it was not until the former American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1950 that local tourist bosses realised the money spinning potential of the line.

Continue reading the main story “ Start Quote A lot of people here ask for more time to spend with family and friends, so I would like us all to give and receive more time” End Quote Santa Claus

Santa Claus is big business in Rovaniemi. The local gym is called Santa Sport, there is the Santa technology park and the local football team, FC Santa Claus, play in red and white. You can sleep at the Hostel Rudolf or Hotel Santa Claus.

Inside the Santa Claus Village post office, tourists write postcards home while "letter elves" organise beautifully decorated letters into piles of the countries they came from.

Some are addressed to Father Christmas in the North Pole, others to Mr Santa in Lapland. But they all find their way here.

One letter elf, Heidi, tells me Santa receives 30,000 letters a day at this time of year. By Christmas they expect to get more than half a million from around 200 countries. The main correspondents come from the UK, Italy and Poland.

"They are not only gift lists," says Heidi. "Sometimes they are thank you letters, or if some people have problems or sorrows, they want to share it with Santa."

On my way to the grotto, I meet Santa's little helper Elfiina, who claims to be 79. I remark that she looks like a normal 20-something woman from Finland.

"I am Elfiina," she says. "That is who I am. I am an Elf - Elfiina. But Santa is ready to see you now."

Rovaniemi's Santa Claus Village is open to visitors every day of the year

I am led through to the dimly lit "corridor of secrets" which is lined with presents. Bells chime and water runs underfoot. I go up a flight of stairs, turn the corner and there he is.

"Ho, ho, ho! Welcome to Lapland and the Arctic Circle," booms the portly bearded man who is sat on a large wooden chair, nestled between a map of the world and a bookcase.

"So, have you been a good boy this year?"

I tell him I have, and I ask for a warmer hat and thermal socks for Christmas. But what does he wish for?

"A lot of people here ask for more time to spend with family and friends," he says. "So I would like us all to give and receive more time."

I ask him if he minds me being in his grotto, instead of a child.

"Definitely not," he says. "Most of the visitors here are grown ups. I myself live in the world of dreams and fairytales and you are never too old to believe in them."

The queue for the grotto is long and my time is already up. But before I leave, I ask Santa Claus if he has a message for the BBC listeners. So this is from Santa: "With all my heart I wish each and every one of you a very happy and merry Christmas."

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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