Pope Francis has issued a new Apostolic Letter “motu proprio,” which modifies the judicial system in Vatican City State. Until now, Cardinals and Bishops could only be tried by the “Corte di Cassazone” (Court of Cassation, the Vatican’s Supreme Court), presided over by a Cardinal. With the new motu proprio, the Pope allows Cardinals and Bishops to be tried by a court of first instance, with the stipulation that cases will still have to be authorised by the Supreme Pontiff.

Cardinals and Bishops accused of criminal offences by Vatican magistrates can now be tried by the Tribunal of the Vatican City State instead of the Court of Cassation presided over by a cardinal, as had been the case until now. Pope Francis made the change in an Apostolic Letter issued motu proprio, which amends the judicial system of the Vatican State promulgated in March 2020. However, trials will still require the Pope’s prior authorization before they can proceed.

The change in legislation comes after Francis himself had addressed the issue at the inauguration of the judicial year in the Vatican on 27 March. In Friday’s motu proprio, Pope Francis, citing his own words on that occasion, recalls “the overriding need for the current procedural system — also by means of appropriate changes in the law — to ensure the equality of all members of the Church and their equal dignity and position, without privileges that date back to earlier times and are no longer in keeping with the responsibilities that each person has in building up the Church.”

Pope Francis’ decision to abolish Article 24 of the law “on the judicial order of the Vatican City State,” — which provided for Cardinals and Bishops accused of criminal offences within Vatican City State to have recourse to the Court of Cassation — is therefore based on the principle of the equality of all members of the Church. The Court of Cassation is the Vatican’s Supreme Court, and in such cases would consist of three Cardinals and two or more associate judges.

When the new motu proprio comes into effect (the day after it is promulgated through publication in L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinals and Bishops put on trial for common criminal offences (i.e., offences not related to the violation of ecclesiastical laws regulated by Canon Law) will therefore be judged like everyone else and by the same Vatican Court, according to the three degrees of adjudication. The motu proprio also introduces a new paragraph Article 6 of the judicial order: “In cases involving the Most Eminent Cardinals and the Most Excellent Bishops, outside the cases envisaged by canon 1405 § 1, the tribunal judges with the prior consent of the Supreme Pontiff.”

What remains unchanged is the need for prior authorisation from the Pope before Cardinals and Bishops can be tried. The new provisions are similar to procedures in States that require authorization from parliaments in order to try heads of state or government ministers.

Follow the link for the full text (in Italian) of the Apostolic Letter “amending the jurisdiction of the judicial bodies of the Vatican City State.”