ROME – Perhaps no one was as startled this week when a 46-year-old woman was placed under house arrest for aggravated theft from a small church in the far southern Italian province of Reggio Calabria as the woman herself.
Her name hasn’t been released by Italy’s military police, who made the arrest, but they did provide details on the case. The woman works as a cleaner, and the church was among her clients. She apparently told police the pastor paid her almost nothing for several hours of intense work every week, so, some time ago, she’d adopted the habit of simply lifting cash out of the poor box when she opened it to dust.
In effect, she said, the money was part of her compensation, even if she’d never technically been given permission to take it, and she insisted she hadn’t done anything wrong. (By the way, she was nabbed by military police who’d gone “undercover” in the church as ordinary faithful in order to find out where the money was going.)
This minor incident comes to mind in light of yet another amendment to the Vatican’s legal system introduced by Pope Francis on Friday, which, in some quarters, is being hailed as a dramatic step toward accountability, but it has elicited skepticism and cynicism in others.
In effect, the amendment – published in the form of a motu proprio, meaning a change to church law under the pope’s personal authority – allows the Vatican’s regular civil courts to try cases against cardinals and bishops. Previously, had a cardinal or a bishop been charged with a civil crime under the laws of the Vatican City State, the case would have had to be heard by the Vatican’s Supreme Court, presided over by a cardinal.
The move eliminates a traditional privilege enjoyed by senior prelates of being judged only by their own, subjecting them to the same legal process as any other defendant, although the pontiff still has to approve any such trial in advance. It’s being spun both as Francis’s latest blow against clericalism, and a signal of his determination to fight crime and corruption in his own ranks.
In some commentary, the immediate question is whether Francis has a particular prelate in mind, with the usual suspect being Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu – either for the alleged misappropriation of Vatican funds to members of his family for which he was fired by the pontiff from his post as prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints last September, or for his role in the London real estate scandal that began when he was still the substitute, effectively the Chief of Staff, in the Secretariat of State.
Although so far Vatican investigators haven’t charged Becciu with any crime relative to the London mess, they have sought extradition from Italy for Cecilia Marogna, an associate of Becciu and a fellow Sardinian dubbed “The Cardinal’s Dame.” (The request was abandoned in January after Italy’s supreme court expressed doubts about its legality.)
Before getting terribly excited, however, there are at least three reasons to take a “wait and see” attitude.
The first is the “cleaner and the poor box” problem, which is that, in many cases, the people responsible for what’s now understood as corruption honestly don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.
Take the original charges the pontiff leveled against Becciu: Siphoning money to a construction company owned by his brother for repairs to overseas papal embassies and moving charitable funds to a couple of foundations in Sardinia in which other relatives are involved. When Becciu called a press conference the next day, he didn’t so much deny those claims as insist there was nothing amiss about what he did.
In general, Italians tend to be relativists about law and absolutists about family, so skirting rules on competitive bidding and conflicts of interest in order to help out relatives and others considered della famiglia, or part of the family, is seen by many Italians not only as acceptable, but actually noble.
Until that culture changes, motu proprio in themselves are a bit like trees falling in the forest with no one to hear.
Second, a legal process is only as good as the will to use it, and it remains to be seen if Becciu or anyone else in a senior position actually will be indicted and tried. Heretofore, the typical practice has been to charge laity and lower-level clerics while insulating the higher-ups from blame – in some cases, declining even to summon them as witnesses, let alone defendants.
In theory, the Vatican’s supreme court could have been hearing cases against cardinals and bishops all along. The mere fact that jurisdiction has been transferred doesn’t automatically mean we’ll be seeing heads on pikes anytime soon.
By way of comparison, the pope’s recent motu proprio on episcopal accountability for sex abuse cases, Vox Estis, so far has resulted in an increase in claims and investigations, but there haven’t been any high-profile convictions. At worst, bishops targeted by a Vox Estis complaint have resigned without official explanation – the April 13 resignation of Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota, is an example – but that’s not the same thing as a legal finding of guilt.
Third, there’s the question of whether the lay-led lower tribunals of the Vatican legal system will be more inclined to be tough on cardinals and bishops than a court presided over by a fellow Prince of the Church. If anything, experience suggests most laity likely to get important jobs inside the Vatican tend to be deferential to church authority, and to give prelates a generous benefit of the doubt.
Of course, all reforms can be frustratingly piecemeal and slow, and even the most sweeping and successful, at some point, probably at some point seemed promising but unproven. Time will tell whether that’s the case with Francis’s latest innovation – or whether, as has happened so often in the past in the Vatican, this turns out be another case of everything appearing to change so that, in reality, everything can remain the same.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.