Could charges be dismissed in Vatican’s landmark finance trial?
During the latest hearing in the Vatican’s financial-scandal trial, the tribunal’s chief judge, Giuseppe Pignatone, said that on March 4, at another preliminary hearing, he would announce the schedule for future sessions, “if there will be future activity” in the landmark case.
The “if” in that sentence suggests a potential disaster for the prosecution—and for the Vatican’s judicial system. The chief judge is clearly weighing the possibility that he might throw the case out of court.
As I said nearly a month ago, the ten named defendants are not the only people facing judgment in this case; the Vatican system of justice itself is on trial. Lawyers for the defendants are arguing that their clients cannot receive a fair hearing, and as each hearing peels back another layer of irregularity, their arguments gain more plausibility.
At the February 18 hearing, defense lawyers focused on four decrees—“rescripts”—issued by Pope Francis, which changed the Vatican’s laws as they applied to both the investigation of the alleged crimes and the trial that has resulted. The defendants now face charges for various financial misdeeds, allegedly committed against the Holy See—which means, for legal purposes, against the Pope. In no other legal system—at least, none that honors the rule of law—would the victim of a crime have the authority to set new rules of the prosecution. John Allen has remarked on this singular situation:
In theory, Pope Francis is the victim of the alleged crimes, which involve bilking the Vatican of millions in inflated fees, but he’s also the Vatican’s supreme authority and his rescripts clearly benefited the prosecution.
Granted, the Holy See is a unique institution, and its laws understandably create situations that could not arise elsewhere. But the conflict here, highlighted by the Pope’s repeated intervention, does raise inescapable questions about the defendants’ legal rights and the possibility of a fair trial.
Such questions are underlined when both the prosecution and the most prominent defendant (Cardinal Angelo Becciu) insist that some key evidence must be withheld, for “reasons of state,” the nature of which they refuse to disclose. Add the prosecution’s repeated failure to comply with the tribunal’s order to furnish testimony to the defense, and a neutral observer could easily accept the defense complaints about elementary fairness.
But if the charges are dismissed, that result would be profoundly damaging. For nearly a decade, after a series of financial scandals, the Vatican has been working to restore public confidence. The results have been gratifying; European financial regulators have acknowledged the strides the Vatican has made toward financial transparency and accountability.
But reports from those European authorities have come with one important reservation. Although the new laws and regulations are impressive, the reports note, the Vatican has not successfully prosecuted miscreants for breaking the laws and/or violating the procedures. If the prosecution fails this first dramatic test, it will be another humilitating setback for the cause of Vatican reform.
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