So, the big news out of the Vatican this week – some of it, at any rate – was that Pope Francis has again tweaked the Vatican’s criminal justice system. Now, the changes he made are not to courts at canon law – those are ecclesiastical tribunals that exist in dioceses and archdioceses throughout the world and in particular cases at certain dicasteries of the Roman Curia, all of which have their own problems – but to the “civil” law that governs proceedings in the sovereign territory known as Vatican City.
Most of the changes are technical and procedural, and – as my friend, John Allen Jr, rightly noted – are designed to dispel or at least mitigate the impression, general among Vatican insiders, that “Vatican Justice” is heavily weighted against defendants, who are typically laymen and laywomen or clergy of the lower ranks.
“When people see a cardinal in the dock,” he wrote, “they’ll believe real justice has arrived.”
So, there are to be no more trials in absentia without counsel present for the accused, and convicts will have a chance to work out community service and other rehabilitative programs and restorative schemes for sentence reduction in the event they are given jail time.
That second one at least suggests that the powers may be gearing up to work on a big wig – either by creating mechanisms that would allow low-level convicts to get time off for good behavior or by making prison more palatable to mitres and red hats, but I’m not holding my breath.
In any case, I’d say The Allen Protocol applies more broadly: to prelates in other jurisdictions, like West Virginia, for example. “In a better world,” I wrote last August, “Bishop [Michael J.] Bransfield would have traded his episcopal finery for an orange jumpsuit years ago.”
While we’re on the narrow subject of Vatican reform, however, a series of articles appeared recently in the e-pages of Italy’s Il Foglio daily, under a cheeky pseudonymous by-line – Cincinnato (i.e. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Roman statesman, general, dictator, and savior of the Republic from the 5th century BC) – and frequently cheekier titles, like: Il giustizialismo vaticano fa acqua da tutte le parti.
Now, fare acqua is literally “to make water” and basically means to say that the Vatican’s justice system doesn’t hold its own. It could be a reference to the children’s game, Hot and Cold – fuoco, fuochino in Italian – where “cold” is acqua in Italian and means you’re way off track. Or, it could be a reference to “making water” in the older English acceptation, in which case it would be an allusive way of saying that the Vatican’s thirst for “rigorous justice” (giustizialismo) has manifested itself in the undisciplined exercise of a specific bodily function.
The series of three articles may be found here, here, and here.
Together, they rehearse and reconstruct certain recent activities of Vatican justice, especially insofar as the spectacularly collapsed Sloane Ave. real estate development deal in London is concerned.
The short version of the reconstruction is that it presents the known facts of the case in a way that makes it awfully hard to believe Pope Francis did not know about – and possibly even green-light – the Sloane Ave scheme, making the treatment of several low- and mid-level figures involved I n the affair especially worthy of raised eyebrows. Of five figures suspended in October of 2019, for example, four never returned to work. Either their commissions were allowed to expire, or they were sent back to their respective dioceses, or they were given early retirement – all without so much as a formal accusation, much less an actual trial, over their alleged role in the London business.
“In an autocratic government like that of the Holy See, where every action is decided and authorized by the superiors,” Cincinnatus wonders aloud, “can it be believed that the supreme authority – the pope – and the sostituto (roughly the papal chief-of-staff, who was first Cardinal Angelo Becciu – since fallen from grace – and then Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, still in office) were not fully aware of the operations they authorized step by step?”
Even if it were so, Cincinnatus goes on to ask, how would one begin to mark the boundary between the point at which awareness of the superiors would end and the one at which the alleged bad faith of those charged with executing their decisions would begin?
“Certainly,” Cincinnatus says, “not with the summary justice that first publicly condemns and then judges.” Thus, one may continue to wonder whether “some investigations have been activated by clockwork and conducted like a patchwork, so that friends are granted everything, enemies not even justice.”
In any case, Pope Francis has ordered investigations, which are ongoing.
In the meantime, he has taken the Secretariat of State’s purse, reinvented the Vatican’s financial intelligence unit, rearranged the deck chairs at the IOR (that’s the “Vatican Bank”), and put pretty much all the Vatican’s assets into one basket at the APSA (that’s the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, the sovereign asset manager of the Holy See, basically the Vatican’s central bank).
The ability of the Vatican to deliver justice worth the name has been the subject of scrutiny of late, from the AP, for example, Il Messaggero, and other quarters – most of which focused mostly on the question, worth asking in and of itself, whether the Vatican could provide the kind of procedural guarantees that are commonplace in contemporary European criminal justice systems.
Cincinnatus, however, saw at least one other facet of the story: the Vatican’s own-goal when it comes to its own sovereignty and sovereign immunity. If the Vatican is asking Italian magistrates to help, what happens when Italian magistrates oblige? For the purpose of setting precedent, do the Italian magistrates even have to oblige, or is the request for assistance enough to get the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent? Most importantly, what happens when the roles are reversed, or the shoe is on the other foot, perhaps in other – non-Italian – jurisdictions, where things cannot be finessed so easily?
At the very least, it appears the powers in the Vatican haven’t thought this one through.