Pope Benedict XVI has pardoned his former butler Paolo Gabriele, who was sentenced to 18 months in jail for leaking secret papal memos, but banished him from the Vatican.

"This morning the Holy Father Benedict XVI visited Paolo Gabriele in prison in order to confirm his forgiveness and to inform him personally of his acceptance of Mr Gabriele's request for pardon," the Vatican said in a statement on Saturday.

Gabriele was then released and had already returned to his family, the Vatican said.

The former butler's pardon was a "paternal gesture" for a man "with whom the pope shared a relationship of daily familiarity for many years".

However, the former butler "cannot resume his previous occupation or continue to live in Vatican City," it said.

Gabriele was found guilty in October of leaking sensitive memos to the press as part of a whistle-blowing campaign against what he said was "evil and corruption" in the Vatican.

He was arrested in May after Vatican police found many documents that had been stolen from the pope's office. He gave them to the media in what became known as "Vatileaks" and mushroomed into a major embarrassment for Benedict's pontificate.

The Vatican said he pope had also pardoned a second Vatican employee, Claudio Sciarpelletti, who was convicted of aiding and abetting Gabriele.

Source: Agencies