March 17, 2020

What does Pope Francis’s reform of the Vatican judicial system mean?

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Vatican City flag from the view of the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, Italy on March 12, 2015 - credit Bohumil Petrik / CNA
Vatican City flag from the view of the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, Italy on March 12, 2015 - credit Bohumil Petrik / CNA

Pope Francis' reform of the Vatican City State judicial system is mostly insider stuff. A look under the hood of the reform law could help understand some trends of change the pontificate is riding – and driving.

The reform has been under study for a long while. A committee composed of members from the Vatican City State administration, the Secretariat of State, the Vatican Tribunal, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and the counselors of Vatican City State had meetings and discussions on the matter.

All agreed that the judicial system had to be reformed. There were, however, different approaches. On the one hand, those who wanted to preserve the particularity of the Vatican City State system, since it is not a State like any other. On the other hand, those who pushed for a "statalization" of the Vatican City State system.

The basic question was: must the Holy See have unique relations with its neighbor, Italy, or must the Holy See be an international player?

Under Benedict XVI and until now, the international option was preferred, at least for the Vatican financial system. The Tribunal was, in fact, the only exception, as it is not composed of international staff, and has no full-time officers. The Vatican Tribunal is a Tribunal of Italians.

The mentality of the Tribunal clashed with the international mindset. No wonder that the Tribunal felt under attack when the Moneyval report, in 2017, lamented that it was not correctly working since it was not following the disseminations of suspicious transaction reports.

However, in October, a financial scandal over the purchase of luxury real estate in London by the Secretariat of State led to searches and seizures in the Secretariat of State and the Financial Intelligence Authority, as well as to the suspension of five Vatican officials.

Things changed after those events.

Pope Francis appointed a new president of the Financial Intelligence Authority, Carmelo Barbagallo, coming from the ranks of the Bank of Italy. It is ironic, considering that the Holy See had pointedly jettisoned the Bank of Italy model a long time ago. It is worth noting that the first board of the Vatican Financial Intelligence Authority was entirely composed of Italians, and most of them came from the Bank of Italy milieu. After that, the Holy See has shifted toward the international model, substantially re-wrote the anti-money laundering law, and carried forward reforms that received the praise of the international observers.

Shortly before the Barbagallo's appointment, Pope Francis chose the Italian prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone as president of the Vatican Tribunal.

Those appointments strongly suggested the Vatican was moving back to the “Italian option”. This new law might be another element in favor of this reading.

The new law does not change a great many particulars One of them is that the Vatican tribunal will have a full-time judge, and the office of the Promoter of Justice, i.e., the Vatican prosecutor, will have a full-time magistrate, too.

The other piece of news concerns the final appeal tribunal, the Supreme Court of Appeal. This court has always been the Apostolic Signatura, and a college of Cardinals must issue judgments. The new law allows for  other so-called “applied justices” — experts in the specific areas of fact or law under consideration in specific cases — to be integrated pro hoc vice into the judicial college.

Another critical new piece is the total autonomy of the Tribunal, both in terms of budget and salaries.

This is an important detail. Along with the Institute for Religious Works, the Tribunal’s statutory regulations and salary policies exist outside of the general Curia rules.

The new centralized office of personnel to be established in the Secretariat of State, by the way, was going to contrast both of these autonomies. The issue was likely spun to the Pope, and the Pope held up the establishment of the centralized office of personnel.

According to the Holy See Press Office, the new law has five key points: it better guarantees the independence of the judicial bodies; it provides specific requirements for the choosing of the justices; it simplifies the legal system, and also strengthen the Tribunal, who has now five judges total – they were four before; it distinguishes the office of the Promotor of Justice from the Tribunal; it clarifies the disciplinary charges for the registered lawyer in case of misbehavior.

The main change in the selection of the justices lies in the fact that now they can be either university professors or jurists of clear fame.

Vatican justices have usually been university professors. According to Giuseppe dalla Torre, former president of the Vatican Tribunal, a professor “is by nature culturally independent, before he is juridically independent,” and this is a guarantee that there will be no entanglement with the apparatus of the Italian State or any other State.”

The college of justices of the Tribunal will be composed of 5 people instead of 4, including the president, and one of them must be “an expert in Canon law.” It is noteworthy that Canon law is still the first source of the Vatican City State law. The question is then: why must only one of the justices be an expert in Canon Law? Must not all of the judges be well educated in canon law?

The increase in the number of justices, and the inclusion of a full-time judge in the Tribunal and a full-time prosecutor in the office of the Promotor of Justice, are provisions made to face an increasing number of prosecutions, especially of financial crimes.

The promulgation of the law came on the eve of the Council of Europe’s Moneyval inspection. Moneyval evaluates how well the financial system of a party state meets international anti-money laundering requirements. In the 2017 progress report, Moneyval praised the Vatican path to reforms but lamented that the Tribunal’s lack of activity.

Moneyval is supposed to operate an onsite inspection in the Vatican in a short time (although coronavirus outbreak can change every schedule), and the progress report of this year will be on effectiveness, that is, how well the Vatican financial system actually works to counter money laundering.

Effectiveness is measured based on the Tribunal activity. The increase in the number of justices will thus help to carry forward the cases.

By the way, the inclusion of external justices in the college of cardinals justices of the Signatura, as well as the requirements for the judges, show that the Vatican is seemingly acting ever more more like a State.

Another development:  the justice retirement age passes from 74 to 75, like every other Curia office.

Pope Francis said that the law looks carefully at the particularity of the Vatican City State. The hidden rationale seems, however, that of having a Vatican more modeled on a State like Italy.

So, there is a Vatican judicial system, but it does not look like one that provides a “Vatican” answer. It is mostly following the path of other States.

Only time will tell if it works.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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