ROME – From the outside, the commonplace assumption about the Vatican’s system of criminal justice probably is that it’s too lenient, because, as people would see it, the system boils down to Vatican personnel policing their peers and thus, many likely assume, the temptation is to go easy.

Insiders, however, have long felt it’s precisely the other way around. The whole point of Vatican tribunals, as they rather cynically perceive it, is to deliver lower-level scapegoats to insulate senior figures from culpability, so the system is stacked in favor of the prosecution.

Basically speaking, if you’re indicted for a crime in the Vatican City State, your odds of acquittal are roughly the same as winning the lottery.

Consider several high-profile recent prosecutions in the Vatican:

  • “Vatileaks 2.0”, in which two former members of a Vatican commission on financial reform, Spanish Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda and Italian lay woman Francesca Chaouqui, were charged for leaking confidential material, along with two Italian journalists, Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi.
  • The Bambino Gesù trial, in which Giuseppe Profiti, former president of a foundation supporting the papally-sponsored pediatric hospital, was charged with illegally using its funds to refurbish the apartment of Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, along with a former treasurer of the foundation.
  • The trial of Monsignor Carlo Alberto Capella, a former aide at the papal embassy in Washington, D.C., who was accused of possessing and exchanging child pornography on his social media platforms. Capella didn’t deny the charges but argued for diminished capacity based on his psychological state at the time.
  • The trial of Angelo Caloia, a former president of the Vatican bank, along with Gabriele Liuzzo, a former attorney for the bank, over charges involving a kickback scheme to sell properties belonging to the bank at below-market rates while pocketing the difference.

Every one of those trials ended in convictions, except for the two journalists in the Vatileaks process, where the tribunal decided it lacked jurisdiction (raising the very good question of why that matter wasn’t settled before the time and expense of going to trial), and the second defendant in the Bambino Gesù case, where the prosecutor himself asked the court to acquit Spina (again, raising questions about why the charge was brought in the first place.)

Note that in every one of those cases, the principal defendants were either laity or junior clergy, while more senior figures were kept out of the line of fire. In the Bambino Gesù case, Bertone wasn’t even called as a witness, let alone charged with a crime, despite the fact that he was the beneficiary of the alleged illegal act and that the defense clamored for the chance to cross-examine him.

It’s important to remember that there is no trial by jury in the Vatican system. Cases are decided by a panel of papally-appointed judges, called to rule on charges brought by a papally-appointed prosecutor. In such a context, there’s almost inevitably a natural inclination to give the benefit of the doubt to the prosecution.

On Tuesday, Pope Francis moved to address the perception that the system is rigged against defendants with a series of reforms, such as modifying the requirements for “in absentia” trials – cases of what the Vatican traditionally calls “contumacy,” meaning a stubborn refusal to comply with authority – as well introducing the possibility of reduced sentences for good behavior and rehabilitation programs.

The reforms came in a motu proprio, meaning a change to the law made on the pope’s personal initiative.

In the past, trials could be conducted in absentia if the defendant refused to appear, with the judgment based on presented evidence and without any defense witnesses. Now, such a trial in absentia will be conducted with a defense lawyer acting on behalf of the accused party, and there’s a proviso to suspend the trial if the defendant can’t attend for a legitimate reason.

In terms of rehabilitation, the new rules allow a convicted party to propose a program of community service that benefits “the public interest” or volunteer activities “of social importance,” as well as measures aimed at “promoting, where possible, mediation with the offended person.” If approved by the court, such proposals could reduce or eliminate time behind bars.

While those moves are clearly humanitarian in spirit, and consistent with Pope Francis’s repeated emphasis that criminal justice systems must recognize the possibility of conversion and rehabilitation, they fall short of a comprehensive reform in favor of the due process rights of accused parties.

As the Italian paper Il Messaggero pointed out, for example, under the Vatican system suspects can still be interrogated during a preliminary investigation without an attorney present, and whatever they say can be used against them at trial.

In the eyes of many Vatican-watchers, however – especially the Vatican’s lower and mid-level personnel, many of them laity, who live with the constant awareness that if something goes wrong, they may be the ones to take the fall – no reform will be considered meaningful until high-ranking officials are exposed to the same legal liability as everyone else.

In other words, the problem isn’t just offering greater protection to defendants. It’s expanding the set of potential defendants to include not simply those who execute criminal schemes, but higher-ups responsible for preventing such wrongdoing who either drop the ball or who are actually complicit.

The ongoing scandal involving a London property deal carried out by the Secretary of State may provide the first opportunity to test the willingness of the system to cross that bridge, since the transactions involved all were explicitly approved by senior officials.

When people see a cardinal in the dock, in other words, they’ll believe real justice has arrived. Until then, reforms such as those introduced Tuesday likely will be perceived as commendable but incomplete.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.