A file picture taken on October 10, 2006 shows Pope Benedict XVI’s butler Paolo Gabriele (R) arriving with the pontiff during a weekly general audience at St. Peter's square. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

In the early 1990s, college friends of Carlo Fusco, a law student in Rome, introduced him to Paolo Gabriele, an amiable Roman with dark hair and chubby cheeks. The two young men recognized one another as kindred Catholic spirits and chatted in pizzerias and coffee bars. After college, Fusco lost track of Gabriele but happily ran into him years later at a night mass at Santa Maria in Via Lata, a 17th-century church built atop the warren of rooms where tradition holds the apostle Paul lived under house arrest. (“Verbum Dei non est alligatum — The word of God is not chained” is etched on a column in the crypt.)

Gabriele would later become a prisoner himself, after being convicted in the pilfered-documents scandal known as “VatiLeaks” that has cast a pall over Benedict’s last year in office. But back then, he talked intensely about his relationship with God to Fusco, who by then had become the equivalent of a divorce lawyer on the church court. Gabriele’s career had taken a turn across the Tiber. He told Fusco that his parish priest, a man with Vatican connections, had recommended him for a maintenance job in the Holy See. His rise there has since become the stuff of legend.

“Who cleaned this bathroom?” Fusco said one powerful cardinal asked Gabriele upon exiting the spotless facilities. Gabriele was the Mr. Clean in question, and he moved up to polishing the Vatican’s ornate marble and got ever closer to the pope. Fusco said over lunch in an upscale Rome restaurant that he was surprised to run into Gabriele again in the early 2000s, after an audience Pope John Paul II held for lawyers credentialed to the Vatican, in the frescoed Clementine Hall.

In April 2005, John Paul died after the second-longest reign in church history. His doctrinal watchdog, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, followed him as the 264th successor of Saint Peter. A less celebrated transition occurred the next year, when Angelo Gugel, John Paul’s studiously reserved silver-fox butler, retired after serving three popes over nearly three decades.

The Italian media had other explanations for Gabriele’s rise. One report claimed that Communion and Liberation, a powerful conservative lay movement within the church, had recruited him. (Both the movement and the Vatican called that nonsense.) Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, set the Vatican buzzing when it reported that Argentina’s powerful Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, a potential Vatican secretary of state who has also emerged on shortlists of Benedict’s possible successors, had sponsored Gabriele’s introduction to the pontifical household.

Once in place, Gabriele became a fixture at the Vatican. On most mornings, he left his apartment on Via Porta Angelica, just inside the Vatican walls, before 7. He walked past the plumed Swiss Guards and into the Apostolic Palace, where he worked in the third-floor papal apartments, laying out Benedict’s white vestments and red shoes, serving his decaf coffee and praying with the pontiff in a private chapel. When it rained, Gabriele held Benedict’s umbrella. When they traveled, he rode shotgun in the popemobile. His black gelled hair, dark suits and fleshy cheeks clenched in a cherubic grimace became so familiar around the Vatican Gardens that clerics affectionately called him Paoletto.

He also appeared, Zelig-like, near Benedict at the time of some of the pope’s greatest public relations disasters. On Jan. 24, 2009, 15 minutes after the Vatican released the pope’s decree lifting the excommunication of four prelates, including Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier, Benedict, draped in white robes, addressed a gathering of Chaldean bishops in a sunny Vatican hall with a gleaming marble floor, frescoed walls and a gilded papal seal above his head. Gabriele, dressed in dark suit, white starched shirt and black vest over a purple tie, stood in the corner preparing the crimson-boxed books Benedict gave the bishops as parting gifts.

A few months later, Gabriele opened the back door of Benedict’s black Mercedes as the pope stepped out onto the tarmac for a flight to Africa during which he said that condom use “increases the problem” of AIDS.

Those public missteps frustrated many of Benedict’s supporters. But Gabriele proved to be more bothered by internal conflicts and turf wars that he thought undercut the pope’s fledgling reform efforts. He became aware of those internecine battles as he read, and absconded with, the pope’s private correspondence in an office he shared with Benedict’s private secretary. He later leaked those documents to an Italian reporter, who compiled the letters into a blockbuster book that triggered the VatiLeaks scandal.

Even before Gabriele was discovered as the source of many of the VatiLeaks documents, he had gained a reputation as something of an over-sharer. He was not shy, insiders said, about offering his concerns about the Vatican to some of its top cardinals. Among fellow laymen, he spoke as though he were in the know. Gabriele lived with his wife and children upstairs from a woman whose daughter had been kidnapped decades earlier in an infamous Vatican scandal. The butler would sometimes bump into the girl’s brother, Pietro Orlandi, who said Gabriele would claim that everyone in the Vatican knew what had happened to his long-lost sister but that no one had the courage to tell the truth.

During his trial, Gabriele boasted to Vatican investigators that the four-minute walk home sometimes took an hour and a half because “I am continuously stopped” by people asking for help. Vaticanisti, the reporters who obsessively document Holy See machinations, often turned to him, too.

One reporter who met frequently with Gabriele said that the butler often waited for the pope’s secretary to leave the room so that he could slip public appeals into the pope’s personal inbox. That reputation as an accessible back channel of information both into and out of the pope’s office, combined with his initial statement, later recanted in court, that others “suggested” the leaking plot to him, created wide suspicion within the Vatican that a sophisticated conspiracy of cardinals exploited the butler’s loose lips.

Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, dismissed that theory and depicted “Paolo” as a lone and troubled leaker.

“It’s very strange that a person had so much trust for so long in this office has done such a clamorous act,” he said, suggesting that a court-appointed psychological analysis of Gabriele revealed he was not a rational person. “His personal interest in the world of intelligence and freemasonry help you understand a little a mentality that searches for classified documents and relationships in the institutions.”

After his arrest, the Vatican effectively silenced Gabriele. During his trial, the judge cut him off as he began to expound upon his conversations with cardinals. Fusco, his old friend, signed on as his attorney but was fired after talking to the press. His other lawyer, Christiana Arru, laughed when asked about the prospect of seeing her client in jail.

“I exclude that he would want to talk to any journalist,” she said, suggesting that his being burned once would suffice.

Asked again a few days later, she grew angry. “For starters you all know nothing about Catholicism, which is a single body, but we absolutely do not want to make any statements that are different from those made by the Holy See,” she said. “This is not a case against the Holy See. The Holy See has been sufficiently damaged in this period. So I wish you good luck but you won’t get anything from me or from the family.”

Gabriele’s wife repeatedly declined to comment, repeating “this is a very delicate moment” in several brief conversations.

Before Christmas, the pope, wearing white robes, personally pardoned his former butler, dressed in his usual gray suit and striped tie, during a 15-minute jailhouse meeting. The pontiff also banished Gabriele from the city state, providing him with a new job and residence — a “paternal gesture,” according to the Vatican. The Italian press has reported that the former butler’s apartment will soon be occupied by his successor, Sandro Mariotti (nicknamed “Sandrone”), who has since taken Gabriele’s seat in the popemobile.

A few weeks ago, Pietro Orlandi, the brother of the kidnapped girl, went to visit his mother and bumped into Gabriele outside the apartment building.

“He was serene,” Orlandi said.

Gabriele now performs clerical duties at a Vatican children’s hospital attached to the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Gabriele may have some familiar company there. His former supervisor, Cardinal James Michael Harvey, was recently moved out of the Vatican and appointed the basilica’s titular priest.