If you ever begin to think about Vatican politics, you’ll be fascinated with how the state is organized. When technically considered a sovereign state despite all its particularities, the center of the Roman Catholic Church is very particular about its relations with Italy. Since Vatican City is within Rome and is separated from it by nothing but a wall, the system in which it interacts with Italy is rather complicated. It is often heard how the Italian police have committed arrests in the Holy city, but if it is a sovereign state, how does that work? Well, the truth is the criminal system of the Vatican is a little more complicated than in other countries.
Can the Italian police enter the Vatican?
Yes, but not really. Since the Vatican is considered a sovereign state the Italian police technically have no business within the city. The rules of how they manage criminal prosecution are set on a treaty that is over 85 years old, the Lateran Treaty. According to this treaty, the Italian forces are allowed in the city, but only to patrol St. Peter’s Square. The reason why they can only be at a said place is because of its proximity to a contiguous Roman neighborhood. Other than in St. Peters Square, the Italian police have no jurisdiction on the Vatican floor. It has been this way ever since 1929 when the Vatican was formally established as what it is today and had normalized relations with the country of Italy.
The agreement also establishes that the Pope is to be guarded by the Italian police when leaving the Vatican, seen as the city is surrounded by Italy. So, while inside the Vatican this is handled by the Swiss Guard when leaving the walled city, the Italian police corps guarantee and coordinate all armed escort for the Pope. But also to heads of State when they enter the Vatican City.
Similarly, it is the Italian police force and crime system that usually takes care of the prosecution. All cases of crime are usually handed to Italians, and criminal jail time is spent in the prisons of Italy, while the Vatican covers the expenses.
The Italian police also often prosecute the Vatican crimes, seen as the City has no jailing institutions, and both countries' laws are fairly similar. The Vatican manages crime prosecution with an extradition system.
Then, how do police forces work in the Vatican?
The answer to this question is set on paper, on an 85-year-old Treaty. In the Treaty, it is established that 130 men, (who must be Catholic and ranging between 21 and 25 years old, graduated from high school, and at least 5 feet 8 tall) as the Vatican Gendarmerie Corps, they are the Vatican police forces that work with the Italian corps. Church business (guarding the Pope, etc) is handled by the Pontifical Swiss Guard.
Corps of Gendarmerie of Vatican City
The Vatican Gendarmerie Corps handle everything from law enforcement to firefighting.
The police corps aren’t really big because the Vatican isn’t a big country, anyhow, it is one of the states with more crimes per capita. However, these crimes are not that serious, but rather petty crimes, like pickpocketing from tourists.
The Gendarmerie Corps, despite being small has significantly expanded into more ground-covering capabilities. They joined Interpol in 2008, and have investigated and arrested a lot of cases within the city limits.
The only murder case that has ever been reported in the Vatican was in 1999, and it was when a Swiss guardsman shot one of his superiors and his wife, just before shooting himself.
The attempted 1981 murder of Pope John Paul II, was handled by the Italian police directly. The criminal attempted to murder the Pope in St. Peter’s Square, which is legally allowed to be patrolled by the Italian police corps. The attempted murderer, Ali Agca, was prosecuted, faced trial, and was sentenced in Italy to an Italian prison.
In 2012, the Vatican's former butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested and charged with stealing confidential documents from the pope's apartment. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison, although he was later pardoned by Pope Benedict XVI.
In 2018, the Vatican's former ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, was ordered by the Vatican to leave the United States and return to Rome after he released a letter accusing Pope Francis of covering up sexual abuse by a former cardinal. However, he was not arrested or charged with any crime.
Fake news of Arrest
In 2019, the magazine Pantheon released an article that talked about Italian authorities making an arrest in Rome and therefore seizing Vatican City. Though, if read thoroughly the article was a tad ridiculous, it rose a bunch of questioning from the general public, that were concerned the news was utterly true and massive arrests had been committed in the Holy City. So, the question is whether the Italian guard allowed into the Vatican became quite popular.
However, this particular case couldn’t have happened, not only because of the agreements Italy and the Vatican hold with each other but because, like the Vatican is a sovereign state, Italy would be threatening their sovereignty and therefore committing a violation of International Law, and the UN Charter. Even if a violation of Human Rights was claimed, taking the city under Italian control would have been a severe violation, and extremely frowned upon by the International community.
But the article was fake and just raised an unnecessary wave of worry among the readers who didn’t understand it.
Vatican Judicial System
When a case is not handled by the Italian authorities, it is prosecuted by the Vatican’s judicial system. This system is extremely small and managed by three main parts. There is a single judge who has jurisdiction over minor crimes, like parking tickets. Then there is a three-judge tribunal for more serious crimes, and finally, a court of appeals that contains three cardinals and one non-cardinal.
Naturally, Vatican Law is strongly based on Italian law. However, in more recent years Vatican law has diverged from its Italian counterpart. For example, Vatican City abolished capital punishment despite it still being legal in Italy at the time.
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