ROME – Pope Francis has sent another message to Vatican-based cardinals and bishops that he intends to hold them accountable for criminal misconduct: He removed the procedural obstacles that had spared them from being prosecuted and judged by the Vatican’s lay criminal tribunal.
A new law published Friday makes clear that Vatican city-state prosecutors and judges have jurisdiction over Holy See cardinals and bishops and need only the pope’s consent to proceed with investigations and trials against them.
The law abrogated a regulation that said only the tribunal’s highest appeals court, which is made up of three cardinals, could judge cardinals and bishops accused of criminal offenses.
The reform is the latest sign that after eight years of preaching about ending corruption and other criminal activity in the Holy See, Francis is taking concrete steps to make it easier to hold his own cardinals and bishops accountable while emboldening Vatican prosecutors to go after them.
On Thursday, he passed a different law forcing Vatican superiors to declare their finances are clean, and set a 40-euro ($48) cap on work-related personal gifts received by any Vatican employee. The gift cap was seen as a way to cut down on the rampant practice of financial gift-giving to Holy See clerics.
Friday's reform follows Francis’ decision last year to strip a senior Vatican official, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, of his privileges as a cardinal in a move seen as laying the groundwork for Becciu to possibly be put on trial.
The allegations against him aren’t clear, however, and Becciu hasn't been charged with any crime.
Becciu has said Francis cited a 100,000-euro donation he made using Holy See funds to a charity run by his brother. Becciu has denied wrongdoing, noting that he had full authority to disburse the funds, the money was destined for the charity, not his brother, and the money never left the diocesan bank account into which it was deposited.
Becciu was also involved initially in a London real estate venture that is now the subject of a Vatican corruption investigation. But the key transaction under scrutiny occurred after he was promoted.
The new procedural law Friday would presumably make unnecessary any move to strip other cardinals of their privileges before an indictment is handed down.
In an introduction to the new regulation, Francis said it was important to make sure everyone is equal under the law.
Within the church’s in-house canon law system for church crimes, cardinals and bishops are judged only by the pope, who is an absolute monarch with exclusive legislative, executive and judicial power in the Vatican. That privilege extended also to the criminal code of the city-state’s tribunal in ways that led to some anomalies in recent years.
In one famous case, prosecutors decided to not even investigate the cardinal whose Vatican apartment was renovated using a half-million dollars in donations intended for the pope’s children’s hospital. The hospital president who diverted the funds to the renovation project was convicted by the Vatican tribunal. But the cardinal who benefitted from the crime wasn’t even called to testify, much less investigated.
More recently, a British judge expressed perplexity that the current Vatican hierarchy had seemingly been spared investigation in the London real estate corruption case. The judge, ruling in a related asset seizure case, questioned why the Vatican secretary of state and his No. 2 hadn’t even provided witness statements about the London deal, when documents and evidence indicated they had authorized it.
The text of the new law was published without comment near the back of Friday's editions of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.