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Crimes against humanity?

September 13, 2011

A US-based group representing survivors of abuse by Catholic priests has filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court in The Hague against Pope Benedict XVI for crimes against humanity.

Pope Benedict XVI
The pope is under fire over his handling of abuse casesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A US-based nonprofit group representing survivors of abuse by Catholic priests has asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to prosecute Pope Benedict XVI and other high-ranking Vatican officials for crimes against humanity.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, acting on behalf of the Survivors Network of those abused by Priests (SNAP), requested the inquiry on Tuesday, arguing that the global church had maintained a "long-standing and pervasive system of sexual violence" and had done very little to bring those responsible to account.

It also accuses the Vatican of creating policies that perpetuated the damage the abuse had done, which would constitute an attack against a civilian population.

"We have tried everything we could think of to get them to stop and they won't," Barbara Blaine, president of the SNAP, told the Associated Press. "If the pope wanted to, he could take dramatic action at any time that would help protect children today and in the future, and he refuses to take the action."

Investigation would be tricky

priest with handcuffs covering his face and holding a cross
Victims claim the church hasn't done enough to deal with and prevent abuseImage: picture alliance/dpa

The complaint names Pope Benedict XVI, partly in his former role as leader of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which in 2001 explicitly gained responsibility for overseeing abuse cases; Cardinal William Levada, who now leads that office; Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state under Pope John Paul II; and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who now holds that post.

In a statment to AP, the Vatican's US lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, called the complaint a "ludicrous publicity stunt and a misuse of international judicial processes."

In the last few years, thousands of people have come forward in Germany, Ireland, the US and elsewhere with reports of abusive priests and bishops who either covered up for them or failed to act at all.

An investigation by the ICC, however, is by no means certain. The Holy See is not a member state of the only international court dealing with war crimes on a permanent basis, and it does not investigate crimes committed before it was created in 2002. It has never launched an inquiry based solely on one request; since its inception, the court has received nearly 9,000 independent proposals, none of which lead to a formal investigation.

Riot police officers clash with demonstrators during a protest against the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in Madrid
Pope Benedict is likely to draw protesters in his visit to Germany, like in his August trip to MadridImage: dapd

Instead, the ICC has investigated genocide, murder, rape and the conscription of child soldiers in cases where the countries in which the crimes were committed or the United Nations Security Council brought the complaint.

But SNAP and its lawyers insist that no other entity exists that could prosecute the Vatican officials who failed to protect children.

"Politically, people do not want to look at this," said Pam Spees, a lawyer working with the Center for Constitutional Rights, before filing the complaint. Spees admitted, however, that she was "not hopeful" that the court would launch an investigation.

Pope to visit Germany

The complaint comes ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to his native Germany. He will be the first pope to speak in parliament, which has caused some parliamentarians to announce they will boycott the session on September 22.

Around 100 lawmakers from the Left party, the Social Democrats and the Greens are expected to stay away from the speech, and some have said they will join an anti-pope demonstration outside parliament instead. Critics have said the pope's speech violates the state's principle of neutrality.

Author: Nicole Goebel (AP, AFP, dpa)
Editor: Andreas Illmer