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Pope Francis decrees cardinals and bishops can be tried by lay judges

By breaking down distinctions in the hierarchy, the new decree represents a strike against clericalism in the church, which Francis has combated since becoming pope.

Catholic cardinals, top, and bishops, bottom, attend Pope Francis' grandiose inauguration Mass on Tuesday, March 19, 2013, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Cardinals and bishops can now undergo trial in the Vatican tribunal and be judged by lay magistrates after Pope Francis issued a decree on Friday (April 30) — his second in two days — in which he stressed “the equality of all members of the Church and their equal dignity and position.”

Friday’s decree, aimed at curbing corruption and fostering financial transparency after an extended season of scandals in the church, could also be a long-awaited leveler, answering pleas from many Catholics for more accountability for the hierarchy.


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The Vatican court system consists of the Tribunal, the Court of Appeals and the Cassation Court, the equivalent of the Supreme Court, which comprises two cardinals and a “promoter of justice.” The Tribunal, created in 1929, is composed of three magistrates nominated by the pontiff and currently headed by the prominent anti-mafia prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone, appointed by Francis in October 2019.

Previously, cardinals and bishops could only be judged by a jury of their peers in the Court of Cassation. Its president, French Cardinal Dominique Lamberti, is also the prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature, the highest court concerning spiritual and religious matters and overseeing the administration of justice in the Vatican.

In this Dec. 21, 2020, file photo, Pope Francis exchanges holiday greetings with Vatican employees in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file)

Pope Francis at the Vatican on Dec. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file)

By breaking down distinctions in the hierarchy, the new decree represents a strike against clericalism in the church, which Francis has combated since becoming pope.

But most immediately, it puts the spotlight on cardinals who have been embroiled in Vatican financial scandals, such as Cardinal Angelo Becciu or Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who if charged would stand to undergo trial before a tribunal composed of lay judges, not solely the jurisdiction of fellow prelates.

While Francis’ decree seems to reduce the exclusive authority of the pontiff, some Vatican observers see it as further centralization of the judiciary in the city-state. Cardinals will likely appear only before the Tribunal and Court of Appeals, both headed by Pignatone, with the Court of Cassation increasingly used only as a court of last resort. 


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