Is Vatican City’s judicial system in peril?

polizia_at_St_P.jpg A police officer on duty at St Peter’s Square. Credit: Maciej Matlak/Shutterstock

The U.K. court ruling that overturned an account seizure request by Vatican City prosecutors has raised questions about the reliability of the Holy See's judicial system.

The verdict by judge Tony Baumgartner overturned an earlier decision seizing the British accounts of the Italian broker Gianluigi Torzi. Torzi was involved in the Secretariat of State's luxury real estate investment in London.

Torzi was arrested by the Vatican last summer on two counts of embezzlement, two counts of fraud, extortion, and money laundering.

In his ruling, Baumgartner often used the words "misrepresentation" and "mischaracterization" in relation to the Vatican's request for the accounts seizure (known as a "restraint application").

In his conclusion, Baumgartner noted that "an applicant to this court for a restraint order relying on external requests should be careful in relying upon facts unverified or unsupported by direct evidence, and should not unhesitatingly rely upon assertions that are not properly established on the facts."

He also pointed out that "applications of this nature often are brought with haste because of the fear of the real risk of dissipation of assets, but the restraint application was not an application prompted by discoveries made in a new investigation, or even in an investigation that was unfolding."

This is the third time that Vatican prosecutors have received a negative response from authorities abroad.

The first concerned Cecilia Marogna, who allegedly misused Vatican funds intended for humanitarian activities. Marogna, an Italian citizen, ended up in prison in Italy, while Vatican prosecutors also submitted a request to extradite Marogna to the Vatican. A lower court validated the arrest. But the Supreme Court of Cassation canceled the arrest because the request had no specific motive and "lacked the specific cautionary needs."

The second was the search and seizure in Fabrizio Tirabassi's apartment. Tirabassi, an official of the Secretariat of State's administrative section, was one of the five Vatican officials suspended when the London investigation began. Rome's public prosecutor initially validated the seizures in his apartment following a Vatican request.

But the measure was later declared null since the search and seizures were part of an "out of the ordinary request," with "evident and substantial" illegitimate actions, such as that the seizure order came directly by the prosecutor without the validation of a judge.
The Baumgartner ruling is more significant than the other two because it is the first time that a third-party judge has looked into the documents and challenged the professionalism of Vatican prosecutors.

Baumgartner wrote that the Vatican's "non-disclosures and misrepresentations are so appalling that the ultimate sanction" to reverse the assets' seizure was appropriate.

The prosecutors, Baumgartner said, maintained that Torzi "'dishonestly and secretly' decided to issue himself controlling shares in Gutt (one of the societies that intervened in the purchase) to prevent the Secretariat from acquiring the whole of the interest in the Chelsea Property until the Secretariat agreed to pay him a further EUR 15,000,000 [around $17.6 million]."

But the judge concluded that the allocation of 31,000 shares of Gutt "is improperly characterized as secretive and dishonest in the Letter of Request, and that (...) is a misrepresentation of the facts."
The British judge also noted that "the Letter of Request is conspicuously silent about [senior Vatican Secretariat of State official] Archbishop Peña Parra's involvement throughout, a matter I find of some surprise given it emerged after the restraint order had been made that he is said to be the subject of the blackmail" -- the alleged extortion of the $17.6 million.

The investigation has not yet led to an indictment, but questions have arisen regarding Archbishop Peña Parra: If he was aware of and endorsed the controversial financial operation, why wasn't he too included in the investigation?

Most importantly, the British judge's ruling could mark a serious setback for the Vatican judicial system's credibility on the eve of the Moneyval report on the Holy See.

Moneyval is the Council of Europe's committee that evaluates if member states are adhering to international standards. Moneyval will issue its fourth progress report on the Vatican at the end of April. This report will discuss the Vatican judicial system's effectiveness in countering money laundering and the prevention of financing terrorism, so the Vatican prosecutor will be under strict scrutiny.

Many argue that the Vatican prosecutor's reliability is in question since he conducted his investigation disregarding the rights of the people involved.

More in Vatican

This began with Torzi's arrest at the Vatican. He went with his lawyers for an interrogation but found himself thrown in a cell for 10 days.

Then there was Raffaele Mincione, an Italian citizen taken from a hotel and placed in custody in Italy. He has filed two lawsuits in London against the Holy See.

There are also possible lawsuits at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg; since some of the defendants have been arrested or subjected to search and seizures without even knowing the charges against them.

Six people were first suspended and then demoted from (or not renewed in) their positions because of the London investigation. They had no notice of the charges against them until the prosecutors had interrogated them. Still, they do not know if they will face trial.

The Holy See is part of an international system and signs declarations, memoranda of understanding, and international conventions. Yet the Vatican state is an absolute monarchy, with a judicial system working under the decisions of an absolute monarch.

What if the activism of the Vatican tribunal backfires against the Holy See? What if any state hostile to religion uses these procedural mistakes and human rights failings to attack the Holy See and the Catholic Church in a broader sense?

These are the reasons why the Baumgartner ruling sends an alarm signal that the pope cannot ignore.

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