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Covering the Vatican



Vatican Court System

As part of the Catholic Church’s court, or tribunal, system, the Vatican has

three central tribunals.

Apostolic Penitentiary

This is a Vatican court dealing with indulgences and the sacrament of pen-

ance and reconciliation. For example, in 2007, the court announced a special

indulgence for Catholics who took part in certain devotions to Our Lady of

Lourdes, to mark the 150th anniversary of Mary’s appearance to Bernadette

Soubirous, a girl who lived in southern France. The

major penitentiary

, or

head of the court, is the pope’s delegate in hearing petitions for forgiveness

from people guilty of sins reserved to the Holy See. The office also sponsors

seminars on the sacrament of penance, of which confession is a part, and com-

missions priests to serve as confessors in Rome’s four patriarchal basilicas.

The major penitentiary is Cardinal Mauro Piacenza. Phone 06-6988-7526.

E-mail .

Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature

Also simply called the

Apostolic Signature

(or, on second reference,



), this is the church’s supreme court. You may also hear canon lawyers

or others refer to it by its name in Italian,


, or in Latin,


. It is

an appeals court, hearing challenges to lower court judgments or to decisions by

Vatican offices and local bishops—especially appeals based on claims that the

lower court or official failed to follow proper canonical procedures in reaching

the decision. The court’s prefect is the Vatican’s second-highest legal authority,

after the pope. According to norms revised by Pope John Paul II, particularly

serious crimes against morals and the sacraments, such as sexual abuse of a

minor by a cleric, are reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the

Faith, whose decisions in those cases may not be appealed to the Signature.

The prefect is Cardinal Dominique François Joseph Mamberti. The secre-

tary is Archbishop Frans Daneels, O. Praem. Phone 06-6988-7520.

Roman Rota

The Roman Rota is the main central appeals court of the church. Most of its

docket is made up of marriage annulment cases that have first gone through

diocesan tribunals. Twenty judges, called


, sit on the court. They

usually hear cases in a three-person panel. Only the Apostolic Signature can