There are several procedural differences in trials under canon law than in our American system of justice. One of these differences is that there is no jury. The finder of fact--which in our system is the jury--is the same entity as the judge. That is, the judge is "jury, judge, and executioner." Judges hear the testimony, decide on the truth to a degree of moral certitude, and then sentence the person if the accusation is substantiated. If the charge is unsubstantiated, this finding is pronounced in a decree.
Another difference in canonical trials and American trials is that a canonical trial takes place in front of a tribunal. The tri- prefix denotes that there are three judges. At least two of the three judges must agree on the decision to substantiate. There are no "hung juries" or "mistrials" in Church trials conducted by tribunals.
|A Church Tribunal at the Vatican - three judges.|
Over the last decade, many canonical trials have taken place in the United States. Every diocese is empowered, and indeed required, to have a tribunal. The (arch)bishop is the chief judge in his (arch)diocese, but he usually appoints others judges to actually act in judicial matters. Most of these judges are priests, but lay people can be appointed. A lay person may not be the sole judge on a case, and on a three judge panel, at least two must be priests. Tribunals are the norm, but a sole judge can hear a case if there are not enough judges to handle the volume of cases. The most common type of case is a marriage validity case, commonly called an annulment case. (That term is not accurate, but that is a whole different issue.)
The reason for this short dissertation on how Catholic Church trials are conducted is that a rare Church trial just concluded yesterday in Vatican City. It involved the theft and wrongful distribution (to journalists) of papal documents that were intended to be destroyed. Earlier this year, newspapers in Rome began publishing stories about the inner workings of the Vatican, including allegations of corruption at the highest level. The leak was traced to the Pope's personal butler, a married lay man named Paolo Gabriele. He had access to the Pope and the documents that had been stolen. Gabriele and a Vatican computer expert who helped him disseminate the documents were charged with aggravated theft. This was the Church's version of "Wikileaks."
|The Pope's butler also acts as a bodyguard of sorts, as well as a valet outside the papal household.|
This sign is on the building containing the only court room inside the Vatican city-state, which is where the trial took place.
And the courtroom itself is a small room that holds only the accused, their canonical legal counsel, the canonists who act as the equivalent of "prosecutors," and whomever the tribunal approves to be in attendance. Generally there are no live witnesses, as all testimony has been taken during the pre-trial stage.
|Fish-eye view of the only courtroom in Vatican City.|
|The courtroom during Gabriele's trial.|
|The fact that cameras were allowed inside during the proceedings is quite extraordinary.|
The Tribunal substantiated the charges against Gabriele, and sentenced him initially to 3 years in prison. They amended that, however, to half that amount. He and the computer expert who also was "convicted" will serve their time in an Italian prison since the Vatican does not have a jail at which to incarcerate people. It is also possible that the Pope will pardon Gabriele. That remains to be seen.
|Paolo Gabriele, formerly the Pope's butler, was found "guilty" and sentenced to 18 months in jail.|