Pope changes law to allow prosecutions of criminal cardinals and bishops
Pope Francis has sent another message to Vatican-based cardinals and bishops about his intent to hold them accountable for criminal misconduct, by removing the procedural obstacles that had spared them from being prosecuted by the Vatican's criminal tribunal.
A new law published on Friday makes clear that Vatican city-state prosecutors have jurisdiction over cardinals and bishops and need only the Pope's consent to proceed with investigations against them.
The law abrogated a regulation, upheld as recently as last year, that said only the tribunal's highest appeals court, composed of three cardinal judges, could assess the actions of cardinals and bishops accused of criminal offences.
The reform is the latest sign that after eight years of preaching about ending corruption and other criminal activity in the Holy See, Francis is taking concrete steps to hold his own cardinals and bishops accountable.
On Thursday, he passed a different law forcing Vatican superiors to declare their finances are clean, and set a 40-euro (£35) cap on work-related personal gifts received by any Vatican employee.
The gift cap was seen as a way to cut down on the rampant practice of financial gift-giving to Holy See clerics and the chance that such money could grease favours.
Friday's reform follows Francis's decision last year to strip a senior Vatican official, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, of his rights and privileges as a cardinal in a move seen as laying the groundwork for Mr Becciu to possibly be put on trial.
The allegations against him are not clear, and he has not been charged with any crime.
Mr Becciu has said Francis cited a 100,000-euro (£86,000) donation he made using Holy See funds that he had authority to disburse, to a charity run by his brother. The cardinal has denied wrongdoing, noting that the money was destined for the charity, not his brother, and the money never left the diocesan bank account.
He was also involved initially in a London property venture that is the subject of a Vatican corruption investigation, but the key transactions under scrutiny occurred after he was promoted to the Vatican's saint-making office.
The new procedural law will presumably make unnecessary any move to strip any other cardinal of his privileges before an indictment is even handed down.
In an introduction to the law, Francis said it was necessary to hold everyone equal under the law, as recognised internationally.
"The understanding of such values and principles, which have progressively matured in the ecclesial community, today require the Vatican code to more adequately conform" to international standards, he wrote.
Within the church's in-house canon law system for church crimes, cardinals and bishops are judged only by the Pope. That privilege extended to the criminal code of the city-state's tribunal in ways that led to some anomalies in recent years.
In one famous case, prosecutors decided not to investigate the cardinal whose Vatican apartment was renovated using half a million dollars in donations intended for the Pope's children's hospital.
The hospital president who diverted the funds was convicted by the Vatican tribunal, but the cardinal was not even called to give evidence, much less placed under investigation.
More recently, a British judge expressed perplexity that the current Vatican hierarchy had seemingly been spared investigation in the London property corruption case.
In a ruling about a related asset seizure for one of the Vatican's prime suspects, the judge questioned why the Vatican secretary of state and his number two had not even provided witness statements about their knowledge of the deal, when documents and evidence indicated they had authorised it.