Vatican Judicial Courts Vatican Judicial Courts  Editorial

An unprecedented test case: the London real estate trial

The Vatican justice system faces the most complex investigation and trial, with the largest numbers of defendants, that it has seen in decades.

By Andrea Tornielli

The Vatican investigation that began with the sale of the London property, and the trial – still in its preliminary stages – that has followed from it, are in no way comparable to the investigations and trials that have taken place “beyond the Tiber” in recent decades. This is evident both in terms of the number of people investigated and then charged, as well as in terms of the large number of witness testimonies taken and the electronic and digital material used, the number and seriousness of the alleged offences, and, finally, in terms of the complexity of the various intertwined events. It all started with the internal investigation authorised almost three years ago by Pope Francis, who repeatedly stressed the importance of the fact that reports of alleged irregularities, and the subsequent accusations, came from the Vatican control system. It can therefore be said that the launch of the trial was and is a test of strength, a real “stress test” for the judicial system of the Vatican City State.

Among the complications that have arisen, there was certainly that of applying an older code of procedure, the Finocchiaro Aprile of 1913, which differs from the legal code currently in force in Italy. Various important norms have been added to that code recently, but in any case, before the investigation took on its current contours. This has created objective problems for all parties to the proceedings, who are asked to apply that code to factual situations that the legislator of a century ago could certainly not foresee. It is enough to mention, for example, wiretapping or the seizure and use of computer equipment. On the other hand, the Office of the Promoter of Justice, the Vatican public prosecutor, who exclusively carried out the investigations with the collaboration of the Gendarmerie Corps as judicial police, often had to deal with issues of considerable complexity and without any precedent: one thinks of the enormous number of documents and the numerous rogatory requests necessary to reconstruct the flow of money abroad that make up the structure of the prosecution.

As is normal at the start of any trial, the preliminary objections of the defendants concerned certain decisions and certain conduct adopted by the Office of the Promoter, based on different interpretations of the law applied in the specific case. This is a phase that can be described as “physiological,” when the activity carried out by the prosecution is brought before the judge and the defence teams are called upon to perform their indispensable task. The Office of the Promoter itself, on the sidelines of the hearing, expressed “appreciation for the ordinary dialectic between the parties, prosecution and defence,” saying at the same time that it was certain of the soundness of the investigations carried out and the documentation acquired.

In the hearings that have been held to date, the Tribunal of the Vatican City State has demonstrated, and has also put it down in black and white in one of its ordinances, its desire to ensure respect for the right to defence and, more generally, for due process. This latter principle was implemented by the Vatican with a law dated 11 July 2013, promulgated a few months after the beginning of the current pontificate, which is part of the legislation in force beyond the Vatican.

It is precisely in the logic of guaranteeing a fair trial, and preserving the right of defence, that the Tribunal — following the objection of nullity and the doubts as to the interpretation of the law raised by the defenders; as well as the requests received at this point from the prosecution itself — returned the documents to the Promoter of Justice in order to be able to then provide for the missing interrogations of the defendants. As is well known, the Court also ordered the Promoter to produce all the documents at its disposal, such as the audio and video recordings of the interrogations of defendants and witnesses, carried out with instruments that the 1913 legislation obviously could not contemplate.

The Promoter's Office stated that, in compliance with the Court's order of 6 October, the Office had deposited all the audio and video recordings of the interrogations in their entirety and that therefore “all the documents that are sources of evidence can be found in the trial documents.” The Promoter also explained, with regard to the omissions in some parts of the minutes of the interrogations, that they “concern statements that are not relevant” to this trial and that they were subject to “confidentiality requirements because they were the subject of autonomous investigative activities in other proceedings.”

As the presiding judge stated during one of the hearings, the Court is now waiting for the prosecution to define its position with regard to several of the defendants, either by dismissing the charges or by requesting a new indictment. And the Promoter of Justice has announced that this process will be concluded by mid-January 2022, with the consequent determinations. At that point, and only after all the decisions on the other exceptions formulated by the defenders, which the Court has not yet ruled upon, have been made — one way or another — will it be possible to begin the consideration of the substantive merits of the entire trial, thus entering the heart of the trial phase in order to examine the massive number of acts and documents that make up the accusatory system.

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20 December 2021, 14:28