How is crime and punishment handled in the Vatican City State?  

That question has suddenly become the focus of international attention after the May 24 arrest of Pope Benedict XVI’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, for aggravated theft of confidential Vatican documents, and the possibility that others too could be charged in the ongoing “Vatileaks” investigation. 

Pope's butler
Paolo Gabriele, private assistant to Pope Benedict XVI, is seated in the popemobile in this April 25 photo. CNS photo/Paul Haring

During its 83-year history, the world’s smallest state has had to deal with a wide assortment of crimes, ranging from murder, aggression, theft and drugs to financial crimes such as money laundering, embezzlement, fraud and cases linked to labor laws, as well as lesser offences such as shoplifting in the Vatican’s supermarket or bag snatching in St. Peter’s Square or the Vatican Museums. 

The Vatican’s chief prosecutor Nicola Piccardi, when presenting his report for 2011, said the tribunal dealt with 640 civil cases and 226 penal ones that year. 

Such figures suggest the Vatican City State, with 492 citizens, has the highest crime rate in the world, roughly 1.5 crimes per person. But a mere 1 percent of these crimes were committed by the state’s residents or employees. Currently 2,843 people, most of them clergy or religious, work in the Vatican. An additional 2,001 people (mostly laypeople) work for the city-state’s governatorate. 

Piccardi said 99 percent of these crimes were committed by some of the 18 million pilgrims and tourists who visit St. Peter’s Square, Basilica and the Vatican Museums every year. 

He claimed the Vatican judicial system, which over the years has been improved thanks to canon law and the introduction of new laws relating to money laundering and funding for terrorism, is “sufficiently balanced and efficient.”  

Creating the system

When the Lateran Pacts were signed in 1929, the city-state needed a system of law and justice to maintain order, so it adopted the existing pre-fascist Italian judicial system and code of law. The majority of people working in the Vatican then — as now — were Italians. 

According to provisions in the Lateran Pacts, anyone who commits a crime on Vatican property (including the extraterritorial property outside the city-state), can be handed over to the Italian authorities and be tried in an Italian court.  

Thus, in 1972, Lazlo Toth, the Hungarian-born geologist, was handed over to the Italian police after he attacked Michelangelo’s famous “Pietá” with a hammer in St. Peter’s Basilica. 

The treaty also stipulates that crimes committed in St. Peter’s Square fall under the jurisdiction of the Italian judges and police. For this reason, on May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish gunman, was taken into custody by Italian police and condemned to prison in Italy after his attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II. 

Apart from those provisions, the present Vatican judicial system mirrors the pre-fascist Italian one, and is like an inverted pyramid. 

At the bottom there is the single judge — a layman who decides whether to acquit the accused or send him or her for trial. He can also deal with lesser offenses such as shoplifting and imposes appropriate sanctions, such as removing a permit to duty-free shopping in the Vatican. 

If, in more serious cases, he sends the accused for trial, then the person is brought before a tribunal of three judges (all laypeople) which then hears the case and delivers its verdict. There is no trial by jury in the Vatican system. 

If convicted by this three-judge tribunal, the accused then has the right of turn to The Appeals Court. This court also includes clerics on the bench.  

If the Appeals Court upholds the verdict of the first court, then the accused can make a final appeal to The Supreme Court of Appeals. 

The three judges on the Supreme Court are cardinals, and its president ­— the Vatican’s equivalent of a chief justice — is the American Cardinal Raymond L. Burke. 


The Vatican does not have a proper prison, but it does have three pretrial detention cells, known as “security rooms.” Pope Pius XI had these built next to the tribunal, and insisted on visiting them when they were completed so that he could see for himself “that they are not instruments of torture.” 

The only time these cells have all been occupied was in 1969-71, when four Vatican employees, working in the city-state’s telecommunications center, were arrested and sent for trial for having stolen medallions, coins and a painting from the papal apartment while Pope Paul VI was at the summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. 

The Vatican Tribunal sentenced two of them — Giancarlo Casale and Giovanni Manupelli, to three years in prison. (Manupelli tried to commit suicide while in detention.) It acquitted Raffaele Saliani for receiving stolen goods, which he admitted. It condemned Giovanni Cimaomo to pay a fine of 250,000 lire both for receiving stolen goods, and for being in possession of a firearm when the crime was committed. 

According to the Lateran Treaty provisions, if the Vatican courts condemn a person to prison, the convict is then handed over to the Italian authorities to serve the sentence in an Italian prison. 

The Vatican telecommunications operatives hit it lucky, however. Pope Paul VI pardoned all four. 

Mercy and pardon

At the time of writing, Paolo Gabriele, the pope’s former butler, is the only person in detention in the Vatican. He can be held for up to a maximum of 100 days, at the end of which time the sole judge has to decide whether to acquit or to send him for trial.  

In the meantime, he could be joined by others in the detention cells if the Vatican investigators discover that other employees living in the city-state are involved in Vatileaks. 

Most of the other crimes that have come before the Vatican courts have generally been of a lesser nature.  

Since he is now cooperating fully with the Vatican investigators, he too can hope for a papal pardon at the end of the whole sad affair, such as was given to those convicted of another kind of theft from the papal apartment in 1969. 

Thus, while there is certainly crime and punishment in the Vatican, at the end of the day mercy and pardon are also given an important place in the administration of justice. 

Gerard O’Connell writes from Rome.