VATICAN LETTER Jan-10-2003 (880 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi
CSI Vatican: Crime rate runs high, but court officials offer context
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican has one of the world's highest per capita crime rates, but also a seriously enviable record of collecting fines for parking and traffic infractions.
As with any figures, the Vatican's statistics on crime must be read in context.
For the 108-acre independent state surrounded by Rome, the context is that while the number of full-time residents is fewer than 500 some 2,700 people work there and some 10 million people visit each year.
In 2002, the Vatican City State court dealt with 608 crimes -- more than one for each resident, a ratio well above anything recorded anywhere by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes.
Nicola Picardi, the court's promoter of justice or prosecutor, said the vast majority of the crimes were petty thefts.
"With the large number of faithful going into St. Peter's Basilica or the Vatican Museums each day, naturally there are a few who occasionally join the crowd and lift a wallet or two," said Gianluigi Marrone, a court judge.
"Every once in a while, the police catch the thief," Marrone told Catholic News Service.
The Vatican, he said, has two options in those cases:
-- Generally, if the theft occurs in St. Peter's Square, the basilica or the Vatican Museums -- areas open to the public -- the crime is recorded at the Vatican court, but the suspect is handed over to Italian police for arrest and prosecution.
-- If the theft occurs in an area off-limits to the general public, the case is turned over to Marrone, who also serves as the court's administrative judge.
In December 1994, Pope John Paul II decriminalized most petty crimes, which are now offenses treated in a similar way to traffic or parking violations, with Marrone imposing a fine.
The most common type of theft in the nonpublic areas of the Vatican, he said, is shoplifting in the Vatican supermarket, pharmacy or duty-free shops. The stores are open to Vatican residents, current and retired employees and their families, and some members of religious orders.
Generally, Marrone said, the fine is two to three times the value of the item lifted.
But, he said, "the judge has great discretion. If, for example, the person was elderly and poor and not acting out of malice, then I would rule they cannot enter the Vatican (and use the shops) for six months."
A smaller portion of the penal cases pursued by the court involve going after the miniscule percentage of people who fail to pay their fines for Vatican traffic or parking tickets, Marrone said.
"Only 2 or 3 percent of tickets are not paid," he said. The police, who ticket the cars, apparently are very helpful in directing offenders to the payment office immediately.
The work of the Vatican state tribunal, which is involved with matters of civil, not ecclesial, justice, was explained in a report by Picardi at the Jan. 8 solemn opening of the judicial year -- the first such ceremony in the court's 73-year history.
While the attorney presented the statistics on civil and criminal matters handled by the court, he provided very few details on the nature of the cases.
But he did speak at length on the need to reform the court's procedures, especially to speed up the time between a criminal case being filed and its being resolved.
"The duration of causes before the tribunal is an average of 310 days," Picardi said. "This is an average time which substantially corresponds to that registered by the Italian courts, a period notoriously considered unreasonable."
Part of the problem, he said, is that Marrone's office and its tasks are modeled on the figure of the "procurator" as exercised in the Italian legal system in 1929.
In addition to dealing with criminal and civil suits, he is charged with a mountain of administrative tasks such as recording marriages in the official Vatican government registry and witnessing the signing and reading of wills.
Most of those tasks, Picardi said, could be handled by the court notary.
Marrone said the reforms would help him deal with cases truly requiring a judge: the occasional theft of a piece of art; the falsification of signatures on checks or contracts; charges of "insulting a public official," usually involving an incensed car owner and a Vatican policeman; and vandalism.
The civil suits generally involve contracts, compensation for injuries suffered at the Vatican, disputed rights to reproduce Vatican art, wills involving Vatican bank accounts and the sometimes very heated cases of spouses asking the court to withhold Vatican wages from an employee who has failed to pay spousal or child support, Marrone said.
The last serious crime the court and its investigating judges had to deal with was the 1998 Swiss Guard murders-suicide.
While "certain dramatic events" such as the 1998 case are rare, Marrone said, the Vatican court is professionally competent and sometimes involved in complex international legal disputes, particularly concerning copyrights.
The court decided to make its annual report public for the first time in 2003 to make the court more visible and to show the shroud of mystery surrounding it is simply a journalistic invention, he said.
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