Paolo Gabriele, known as 'little Paolo', was arrested at the weekend

The Pope’s private assistant has been arrested after private Vatican documents were found in his possession, a Vatican spokesman has confirmed.

Fr Federico Lombardi said Paolo Gabriele was arrested last week by Vatican police after they found the illegally obtained documents in his home, which is on Vatican territory. He was still under arrest last Saturday, the day the Vatican statement was issued. The dark-haired assistant can often be seen with the Pope sitting in the front seat of the Popemobile, next to the driver during papal general audiences on Wednesdays.

The spokesman said Vatican judge Nicola Picardi had completed “the first phase” of a preliminary investigation and Vatican judge Piero Antonio Bonnet had begun the next step of the inquiry.

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Fr Lombardi said that Mr Gabriele, then unnamed by the Vatican, had been questioned by Vatican judges in order to obtain further information.

Mr Gabriele has named two lawyers to represent him during the Vatican investigation and has already had a chance to meet them, Fr Lombardi said. The investigation will continue until enough evidence has been collected and then Judge Bonnet will either call him to stand trial or be acquitted.

A committee of three cardinals Pope Benedict XVI appointed in April to look into the leaks had asked the police to investigate.

Dozens of private letters to Pope Benedict and other confidential Vatican correspondence and reports, including encrypted cables from Vatican embassies around the world, were leaked to an Italian journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi. He published the documents in a book, Your Holiness, released two weeks ago.

Fr Lombardi had called the publication of the letters for commercial gain a “criminal act” and said the Vatican would take legal action. The publication, he said, violated the right to privacy and the “freedom of correspondence” of Pope Benedict, the letter writers and the Pope’s closest collaborators. In the book’s introduction Mr Nuzzi said his main source for the texts told him he was acting with a “small group” of Vatican insiders concerned about corruption and a thirst for power within the Vatican. According to his source, Mr Nuzzi said, none of the people giving him documents knew who the others were.

Paolo Gabriele, known as Paoletto (“little Paul”) has worked in the papal apartments since 1998, when he was hired by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, then the personal secretary of Blessed Pope John Paul II.

His role is to see to the Pope’s clothing, to serve his meals and be on hand for other personal needs. He was one of only a handful of people with direct daily access to the Pope and would be considered part of the Pope’s personal family. He is regarded as a devout man, unlikely to be involved in intrigue.

In his homily on Sunday Pope Benedict XVI appeared to touch on the furore. He said that when “men wish to set themselves up as God, they only succeed in setting themselves against one other. On the other hand, when they abide in the truth of the Lord, they open themselves to the action of His spirit which sustains and unites them.”

He spoke of the impulses of the flesh, in conflict with those of the Holy Spirit, which led to “selfishness and violence, such as enmity, discord, jealousy and dissension”.

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