Why Does the Vatican Arrest Leakers, But Not Pedophile Priests?

Q: I read an article online, saying the Vatican just arrested five people for leaking and publishing confidential Vatican documents. Lots of anti-Catholic comments were posted under the article, asking why the Pope arrests leakers but not pedophile priests? I wanted to defend the Church but I didn’t know what to say. Can you explain how the law works, so I can better respond next time? –Colleen

A: Colleen is certainly right about anti-Catholic bigotry! As the late great Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church.” The Catholic-bashers whom Colleen describes apparently think that there’s a legal parallel between priests accused of pedophilia in various countries around the world, and Vatican employees who share sensitive government documents with the press. They think that if the Vatican arrests leakers, it should arrest child-molesting priests too. But is there any way to compare the two? Let’s take a look.

First off, it is correct that five people were indicted by the Vatican on November 21 for disclosing confidential Vatican documents. Two them are Italian journalists, who published documents allegedly obtained from the other three, who are Vatican employees. They were all accused of violating various aspects of a relatively new Vatican law criminalizing the disclosure of sensitive information, passed in 2013 after Pope Benedict’s butler had leaked other confidential documents to one of the same Italian journalists involved in this case (see “Canon Law and the Pope’s Butler” for more on this). A preliminary hearing was held on November 24 at the Vatican City State Tribunal; and at the moment, it appears the next hearing will be held on December 7.

A key distinction immediately has to be made in this case, between canon law—the body of law governing the entire Catholic Church around the world—and the laws of the Vatican City State, which is an independent nation. The five persons in question have all been charged with violating the criminal laws of Vatican City, which does not necessarily mean that they have violated canon law.

As was discussed in “Will the Woman Who Attacked the Pope be Punished?” the State of Vatican City isn’t merely the world headquarters of Catholicism—it’s an actual country. Like any sovereign nation, it has its own military, police force, post office, and court system. The head of this independent country is the Pope, who also happens to be the head of the Catholic Church. The fact that the Pope has dual roles can understandably get confusing, but an excellent short video clarifying the subject somewhat can be viewed here.

The three accused Vatican employees work in Vatican City, are paid out of the Vatican City government budget, and are thus naturally subject to Vatican City’s laws. Vatican City has, as mentioned above, a law on its books criminalizing the sharing of confidential Vatican documents and other information with outsiders. In this, it is probably no different from any other country on the planet! Imagine that the employees of your own nation’s government, with access to confidential state documents, gave them to journalists who then publicized that secret information (earning a profit in the process). Since every nation has legitimate reasons for keeping various types of internal information private—military secrets immediately come to mind—it’s pretty easy to see why sharing such info with outsiders constitutes criminal activity.

There are other Vatican City laws which get broken more frequently than this one. Probably the most “popular” crime is theft, because pickpockets are commonly caught stealing from tourists and pilgrims in the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. These thieves are not citizens of Vatican City, and may not even be Catholics—but the fact that they committed a crime within the territory of the State of Vatican City means they are arrested and tried under Vatican City’s laws. If they had committed the same crime across the border in Italy, they would be tried in Italian court under Italian law, since pickpocketing is a crime there as well. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

Now let’s compare all this to the stereotypic scenario of the Catholic priest accused of molesting children. Legal procedures may certainly vary in the different countries of the world; but in general, if sufficient evidence exists, the priest will be arrested and tried for the offense by the nation in which the alleged crime took place. If the priest were to flee across the border into another country, the nation wanting to try him in its own courts would likely seek his extradition. Laws against molesting children are criminal laws, enacted and enforced by individual nations—they have nothing to do with canon law at all.

That’s not to say, however, that canon law isn’t interested in pedophile priests! As we have seen in “What Does it Mean to ‘Defrock’ a Priest?canon 1395.2 of the Code of Canon Law states clearly that it is a crime for a priest to engage in sexual activity with minors. The canon notes that it is to be punished by “a just penalty,” up to and including dismissal from the clerical state (a phrase discussed in detail in the article just mentioned). There is a set system in place for the investigation of such accusations, as was described in “Canon Law and False Abuse Allegations, Part I”; and nowadays, regardless of where in the world the alleged abuse takes place, the Vatican itself has to be informed –and it will immediately get involved, to ensure that the canonical charge is not ignored.

The Vatican gets involved in these cases, not because it has the power to arrest the priest and throw him in jail—it doesn’t. Any criminal trial will be conducted by the criminal-justice system of the country where the accusations were made. The Vatican’s canonical involvement hinges on the fact that the accused molester is a Catholic priest—and as such he is subject to Catholic hierarchical authorities. And under canon law, these authorities can punish him by (say) removing him from his ecclesiastical office if he holds one, preventing him from having contact with any children in the future, sending him for psychological evaluation/treatment if judged appropriate, and in the most egregious cases, forcibly dismissing him from the clerical state (a.k.a. “laicizing” him).

Now if a Catholic cleric were accused of molesting children within the borders of Vatican City, and/or an alleged child molester were a citizen of the nation of Vatican City, the Vatican police could certainly arrest him, the Vatican courts could try him under Vatican criminal law, and if convicted, he could be imprisoned. Such a crime could potentially be punished by the Vatican both canonically and criminally. Thus far there has been only one case which met these criteria: that of the late Archbishop Józef Wesołowski, accused of molesting boys while a Vatican diplomat in the Dominican Republic.JózefWesołowski

As the Vatican’s Nuncio to the Dominican Republic, Wesołowski was basically the equivalent of an ambassador, and thus held Vatican-City citizenship, travelling in his official capacity on a Vatican passport. When credible accusations were made that he had molested numerous boys in the Dominican Republic, the Vatican reacted on two fronts: it punished him under canon law, and also initiated criminal proceedings in the Vatican City State’s court system.

In June 2014, Archbishop Wesołowski was dismissed from the clerical state, after being found guilty of violations of canon law. At the same time, however, the State of Vatican City prepared to try him under its own criminal statutes, as a citizen and employee of Vatican City. The criminal trial was postponed because of Wesołowski’s ill health, and he died in August 2014, before it could actually take place. If he had been convicted, the Vatican courts could have sentenced him to a term in prison.

All of which brings us back to those Vatican employees we started with, who allegedly leaked confidential Vatican documents to journalists. By this point it should be clear that they were arrested and are being tried not under canon law, but under the laws governing the State of Vatican City. This is a far cry from the situation of Catholic clergy residing in other countries of the world, who are accused of molesting children—since they would be arrested and tried under the laws of the nation where the crime allegedly occurred. The Church may certainly punish guilty priests under canon law, and while such punishment might be severe as far as priests are concerned, it never means tossing them in a jail cell! It is the failure to distinguish between the two types of law that leads the anti-Catholics whom Colleen describes to attack the Church without justification. Unfortunately, as we all know, ignorance of the facts doesn’t always prevent people from hurling unfounded criticisms at the Catholic Church.

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