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World News

Lawyers challenge Vatican’s ‘trial of the century’ amidst claims of legal irregularities

by Lydia Davies

Several leading lawyers have published academic critiques and legal opinions about the Vatican’s recently concluded “trial of the century”. 

Their reports drew attention to alleged violations of fundamental defence rights and rule of law norms that they warned could potentially impact the Holy See in the future. 

These opinions specifically highlighted Pope Francis' role in the trial.  

He is alleged to have secretly amended Vatican law four times during the investigation to favour prosecutors. 

The trial raised questions about the tribunal's independence and impartiality, as its judges swore allegiance to Pope Francis, who had discretionary power to appoint and dismiss them.  

This situation underscored issues for the Holy See: a unique microstate where Pope Francis exercises supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority. 

These legal opinions will likely be significant in appeals within the Vatican court system about the nine individuals convicted in December of various financial crimes linked to the Vatican's €350m (£299m) investment in a London property.  

They could also be raised during the ongoing review of the Holy See's adherence to European standards at the Council of Europe. 

Despite these criticisms, Andrea Tornielli, the Vatican’s editorial director, assured that all aspects of the trial had been fair. 

She said that the judges acted independently and that the trial was carried out, “in full respect of the guarantees for the suspects”. 

However, Geraldina Boni, a canonical and ecclesiastic law expert at the University of Bologna, disagreed. 

She described Francis' four secret executive decrees as effectively giving prosecutors "carte blanche", or unrestricted authority, to pursue their case without judicial oversight. 

Boni highlighted how these decrees enabled prosecutors to intercept suspects' communications and take necessary precautionary measures against them, even deviating from existing Vatican law. 

“It’s obvious that the people under investigation in this case were placed in a situation of substantial and onerous disadvantage, given they were completely unaware of the prosecution’s new investigative powers and thus unable to reasonably foresee the effects of their actions", she wrote in papers entitled State, Church and Confessional Pluralism (SCCP). 

Pope Francis sought to justify these actions by suggesting they were necessary for achieving a greater good, telling tribunal staff in 2023 that they should, “avoid the risk of confusing the finger for the moon”. 

However, critics argued that this approach fundamentally undermined due process of law. 

These concerns were echoed by Paolo Cavana, a professor at the Vatican-affiliated LUMSA University, who questioned whether Vatican judges could truly be independent given the Pope's pervasive powers. 

He wrote in the SCCP that it is a matter of debate whether the Vatican’s judges are truly independent, “given the pervasive character of the pontiff’s powers”. 

He also wrote that it's clear that the papal decrees put "a strong pressure about the outcome of the trial itself", on the judges. 

The implications of these criticisms could extend beyond the Vatican, with legal experts suggesting that other countries may refuse to recognise sentences handed down by a tribunal whose judges were not considered impartial and independent. 

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