Details of Pope Francis’ reform agenda emerged last week. He authorized new criminal laws governing Vatican officials and employees, just as a United Nations committee pressed the Holy See for details on its handling of clergy sex offenders.

The Motu proprio (“in his hand”), or decree by the pope, of sanctions for the Vatican City-State seems to have come in response to the Vatican Bank money laundering scandal. The new laws also cover child pornography and crimes involving children, with prison terms of up to 12 years.

“This is strong stuff,” Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and former dean of Duquesne University Law School told GlobalPost. “And don’t forget who is subject to these new laws – all Vatican officials, the officers and employees of the Roman Curia, apostolic nuncios (papal ambassadors), and diplomatic staff of the Holy See…This is very broad coverage.”

Across several decades, a core issue of the clergy abuse scandals has been the de facto immunity, under the Code of Canon Law, for cardinals and bishops who sheltered and recycled perpetrators. Canon law is an administrative code for the way bishops govern dioceses, and the rights of priests, nuns, lay people and parishes as church entities. Although priests can be defrocked by the Vatican for abusing youth, bishops occupy a unique standing, known as apostolic succession – as part of a lineage going back to the ancient apostles – which means that only the pope has the power to strip a bishop of his title, something popes in modern times have been loath to do.

The new laws for the Vatican City State — a 108-acre area with about 2,000 employees — specify jail sentences for sexual violence and child prostitution as part of the Vatican’s move to join compliance with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Will the new sanctions have an impact on cardinals and bishops? Cafardi believes they “may trump canon law even on immunity.” He adds, “I do not see Francis allowing a pedophile priest, bishop or cardinal to hide inside the Vatican while there are valid charges against them in another jurisdiction.”

Nevertheless, a strong legal move by the pope is unlikely to reduce the clamor raised by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which sent the Vatican a document with many questions “on all cases of child sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy, brothers and nuns or brought to the attention of the Holy See.” The document is part of a long-term negotiating process for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which dates to 1989. As one of many international states that signed the convention, the Holy See was asked to specify the measures put in place to ensure no priest accused of sexual abuse is allowed to come into contact with children.

The UN committee asked the Vatican for “explicit instructions given at all levels of the clergy to ensure the compulsory reporting to national competent authorities of all cases of sexual abuse.”

More pointedly, the document asks for information on church leaders -- bishops and cardinals -- who failed to report priests for sexual abuse.

“The Vatican has been delinquent for over a decade in its reporting requirements to the UN committee,” Pam Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, told GlobalPost. “Before the scandals began catching attention, most people thought, ‘it’s the church, there’s nothing important here to see.’ But the UN Committee is now prodding the Vatican.”

Spees and Barbara Blaine, an attorney who founded Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, gave testimony to the Committee in Geneva earlier this year.

But the Holy See – like the UN itself – is not a territorial entity. The Holy See is the international presence of the tiny Vatican, but the global governance of the church by bishops follows the Canon Law Code, which is not a constitutional instrument governing a country.

UN treaties or conventions often go through a long refining process of clarifications made by various signatories, as they communicate their positions in lengthy documents, according to an attorney knowledgeable of the process, who spoke on background. “The committee knows damn well that the [convention] is designed to determine what happens inside the border of a particular territory — but they want to apply it to the government of worldwide Catholic Church,” the attorney said.

Signatories to UN agreements argue back and forth for years over semantics and provisions of international law as the covenants take shape.

What may be more significant to advocates pressing the church for transparency on the abuse crisis is how the new Vatican laws will be applied as the bank scandal unfolds. Laws governing official misconduct have rarely had much bearing on the Vatican, which has no prison system, only a few cells.

A new provision, which stems from the 2003 UN Convention Against Corruption, covers "crimes against public administration" or "official corruption." The papal butler, Paolo Gabriele, was tried for leaking documents to an Italian journalist, but he was only convicted of theft, as there was no statute for endangering state security. Pope Benedict gave him a pardon; Gabriele and his family moved out of Vatican City. He works in a hospital job arranged by the Vatican, presumably premised on his keeping silence.

In broadening the scope of financial corruption laws, Pope Francis has put the Vatican in a position of allowing functionaries at the Institute of Religious Works (IOR) – otherwise known as the Vatican Bank — of being extradited for financial crimes committed on grounds of the Holy See.

That stands out in high relief from the spectacle of Archbishop Paul Marcinkus who, after resigning from his position as head of the bank in the 1980s during a money-laundering scandal, managed to evade Italian state subpoenas for years by staying within the grounds of the Vatican, standing on diplomatic immunity. After the Vatican paid a $250 million fine to resolve its role in the debacle, Marcinkus was allowed to leave the country. An avid golfer, he spent his sunset years in Arizona.

The IOR has a history of account managers helping special clients transfer large sums of money. Italian authorities recently arrested Msgr. Nunzio Scarano for a thwarted attempt to move $25 million in cash from Switzerland to Italy. The Vatican disclosed Saturday that the bank had frozen Scarano’s accounts.

In a twist of baroque irony, the Holy See also announced that the bank, which has about $7 billion in assets, just provided 50 million euro to the pope for his charitable uses.

Jason Berry writes on religion for GlobalPost and is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church. 

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