An attempt to prosecute Pope Benedict XVI in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for clerical sexual abuse around the globe faces daunting legal obstacles that make it unlikely the case will be heard, but will nonetheless put the Vatican’s role in the abuse under new public scrutiny.
The complaint, filed Tuesday by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) through its attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), charges that “Vatican officials tolerate and enable the systematic and widespread concealing of rape and child sex crimes throughout the world.”
SNAP President Barbara Blaine said in a press statement: “SNAP wants to prevent even one more child from being raped or sexually assaulted by a priest and we hope that victims around the world will know today that they are not alone and that it is safe to speak up and report their abuse. We as victims are mobilizing across the globe, and every survivor is invited to join us.”
In a statement to the Associated Press, the Vatican described the move as a “ludicrous publicity stunt and a misuse of international judicial processes.”
A high legal bar
The challenge for SNAP and the CCR will be to show that the ICC has jurisdiction over the case. Created by, but operating independently of, the United Nations, the ICC was founded in 1998 for the purpose of trying individuals for war crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity.
Experts say the matter of the Roman Catholic Church’s responsibility for cases of child abuse is outside the remit of the ICC. “It’s a publicity stunt, it’s nothing more,” says British attorney Neil Addison, author of legal textbooks including Religious Discrimination and Hatred Law.
“The ICC is supposed to exist for situations of war crime and where there isn’t a legal remedy within the country where the offenses took place. [But] all the child abuse that took place within Ireland took place under the jurisdiction of the Irish courts, the same for the US, and so on,” Mr. Addison says.
“In simple terms, to get a prosecution before the ICC you need to show that what happened was part of a ‘widespread and significant attack directed against any civilian population.’ The ICC is not designed for dealing with normal criminality,” he says.
But the CCR claims that its case against the Vatican authorities is in keeping with the court’s purview.
“We have looked at findings from all over the world and feel it fits the criteria for the court,” says Pamela Spees, a senior staff attorney with the CCR. “If nobody ever demands it then it will never happen, it’s certainly not going to happen on its own.”
The CCR says it has provided 22,000 pages of documentation alongside its filing with the court, including copies of judicial reports from Ireland and Canada, grand juries in the US, and depositions.
“We’re not simply talking about a situation where they kept [child abuse] silent – which is bad enough – they knew the sexual violence would continue when shift these guys [accused priests] around,” she said.
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