An unprecedented trial at the heart of the Vatican has generated significant attention in Catholic and legal circles due to what it is revealing about the management and justice system of one of the oldest organizations on the planet. Hearings are underway in what is being described as the largest scandal in Vatican history, an incredible story that has implications for the Church as a whole and the Vatican’s standing in the world.

The case primarily involves charges against one of the highest-ranking Vatican officials, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who was considered at one time to be the most influential cardinal in the Vatican and a potential successor to Pope Francis. Becciu is now facing a host of corruption charges concerning his role in the acquisition by the Vatican Secretariat of State of a commercial property in London, from which the Vatican claims it lost hundreds of millions of dollars. The case has upset the traditional power structures at the Vatican and has even engulfed the Vatican’s own Financial Intelligence Unit, as well as the seller and broker of the London property. 

Beyond the specific facts of the property deal, the case has turned heads around the world due to the worrying practices of the Vatican around fairness of due process and rule of law. Strangely, despite the alleged criminality supposedly taking place in the U.K. and the Vatican’s losses being suffered in London, there has to date been no criminal case before the English courts against any of the defendants. Instead, the Vatican initiated an investigation and trial within its territory, allowing prosecutors to rely on arcane and frankly questionable practices. 

Unlike any other developed country, the Vatican's powers of investigation and prosecution are not solely codified or based on existing law but are also delegated from the Pope through orders known as rescritti. These orders essentially allow Vatican prosecutors and judges to ignore existing laws as they see fit and operate outside international norms on due process and rule of law. 

The Pope has already granted an unprecedented four rescrittis in this case, providing Vatican authorities with sweeping and unrestricted powers which give them absolute discretion to conduct the investigation and prosecution, and adopt any measures (such as arrests, attachments, etc.) in the manner they deem best without the supervision of a judge.  

One of the rescritti notably allows investigators to use any type of electronic surveillance on anyone they consider useful for their investigation. They also allow Vatican authorities to retroactively issue arrest warrants without the approval of a judge and without the knowledge of the defendants. One of the defendants, Raffaele Mincione, only found out about an arrest warrant against him when a copy of it was mistakenly included in a batch of documents sent to him by the Vatican. As hearings in the case continue this month, we are likely to learn about even more acts of this kind. 

With all these irregularities in mind, it is difficult to imagine how the Vatican could seek to enforce a court decision in this case, particularly in countries that adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights. When the Vatican sought to freeze U.K. bank accounts belonging to another defendant, Gianluigi Torzi, a High Court Judge rejected the request calling the material presented by the Vatican “egregious.” The judge also declared that the witness statement provided as evidence for the freeze “is not signed, nor does it contain a statement of truth.”

All of this has serious implications for the Vatican and the Catholic Church as a whole, at a time when Vatican justice has come under greater scrutiny owing to various controversies around the world and questions are being asked about its willingness to reform. The continued use of practices that violate basic norms of human rights and rule of law in this case is likely to only add fuel to the fire. 

Rodrigo Aguilar Benignos is an International Relations Analyst