While crime can occur anywhere at any time, we never associate crime with places considered the centers of faith, let alone the homes of religious figures. However, the world’s smallest country and the home of the Pope has the highest crime rate anywhere in the world. The crimes range from attempted murder, murder, financial crimes, and petty crimes.
As an independent country despite its small size, the Vatican City has its own justice system, while the Swiss Pontifical Guard Corps, whose main job is to protect the Pope, acts as the Vatican’s military force. The official name of the Vatican is the State of the Vatican City, with the Pope as the absolute sovereign where he exercises executive, legislative and judicial powers. Size-wise, Vatican City is 44 hectares and has a population of around 800 people.
Hotbed for criminals
The Vatican has about 3000 tour guides and is visited by more than 30,000 people daily. Due to the magnitude of the visitors, the Vatican officials have considered limiting the number of visits for fear of a possible stampede due to overcrowding.
Vatican City, the smallest country in the world
Nevertheless, because of the small size of the Vatican and the thousands of people visiting the Papal State every day, the Vatican has become a breeding ground for criminals.
In 2002, crime was so alarming that the Vatican had 20 times more criminal offenses than Italy. Those crimes were 397 civil offenses with a crime rate of 87.2% and 608 criminal offenses with a crime rate of 133.6%. Though the statistics could be mind-boggling, most of the crimes were committed by tourists on other tourists.
The crimes that happen within the Vatican walls go beyond mere petty crimes. For example, in 1998, Alois Estermann, a senior officer of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, and his wife were murdered in their apartment in Vatican City. However, according to the Vatican authorities, the senior officer and his wife were murdered by another Swiss guard who also “killed” himself.
History of corruption
After decades of silence and turning a blind eye to organised crime, the Papacy has, in 2021, set up a special group whose objective was to excommunicate Mafia members after the criminal organization murdered a catholic judge. However, there was a time when the clergy not only tolerated the Mafia, but political convenience forced them to ignore the Mafia’s unrestrained violence.
Power, Money, and Corruption in the Vatican Bank
In the early 70s and 80s, the price of keeping communism at bay made the Catholic Church, the Italian Christian Democratic party, and the Mafia play allies. The church offered quick Christian forgiveness to mobsters. When the clergy was not praising the mobsters, they officiated their weddings and baptized their children.
While the Vatican City’s autonomous justice system means the church decides who to prosecute, there is only one jail and one judge in the Vatican. As a result, the Vatican cannot hold and sentence criminals. Consequently, the criminals are handed over to the Italian government, with whom the Vatican has a treaty. In contrast, petty crime is efficiently handled by revoking the offenders’ access to areas where the crime occurred.
Under Pope Francis’s leadership, the Catholic church has seen historic reforms such as ending the “secrecy” rule on child abuse and openly calling it “psychological murder” while admitting shame over the church’s failures.
Vatican cardinal on trial in $412m fraud case
Nevertheless, crime in the Vatican takes place at the highest echelons of power. For example, in 2021, a prominent Italian cardinal close to the Pope, who held a senior position in the Vatican administration and the former head of the Vatican Financial Intelligence, were among ten people accused of financial crimes by the Vatican.
Time will tell whether Pope Francis’s “determination to cure the rot in Vatican finances” and abolish crime on Vatican grounds will prove successful. For now, Vatican City remains a crime hotspot with the unenviable status as the city with the highest crime rate in the world.