THE CASE OF THE POPE delivers a devastating indictment of the way the Vatican has run a secret legal system that shields paedophile priests from criminal trial around the world.
Is the Pope morally or legally responsible for the negligence that has allowed so many terrible crimes to go unpunished? Should he and his seat of power, the Holy See, continue to enjoy an immunity that places them above the law?
Geoffrey Robertson QC, a distinguished human rights lawyer and judge, evinces a deep respect for the good works of Catholics and their church. But, he argues, unless Pope Benedict XVI can divest himself of the beguilements of statehood and devotion to obsolescent Canon Law, the Vatican will remain a serious enemy to the advance of human rights.
I wrote a short comment for the Guardian and the Daily Beast at Easter 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI was expected to (but did not) address the crisis in his church caused by revelations of worldwide clerical sex abuse. I pointed out that the rape and molestation of children, committed on a widespread and systematic scale, could amount to a crime against humanity, and that the leader of any organization that protects its perpetrators from justice might bear ‘command responsibility’ under international law. I further opined that the Pope’s claim to impunity because he was head of a state, namely the Holy see – a claim recently made on his behalf by the Bush administration in US courts – was open to serious question: it relied on a squalid deal with Mussolini back in 1929 which bore no comparison to the grant of sovereignty to independent people. The UN had been wrong to accord to the Catholic Church a portentous status that is denied to all other religions and NGOs.
My views would doubtless have gone unremarked had not an enterprising sub-editor chosen to publish them under the headline ‘Put the Pope in the Dock’, a novel idea which immediately became an international news story. Soon Christopher Hitchens, an old friend who had sparked my interest in the subject, and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris who supported it were dragged into what became, in an absurd tabloid splash, ‘Plot to Have Pope Arrested’. So my original point was lost in sensation. It was that Popes are not immune from legal action and that unless the Vatican confronts its history of protecting paedophile priests and abandons its claim to deal with them under Canon Law, then its leader might well be sued for damages or end up as the subject of investigation by the prosecutor at an international court.
The fact is that tens of thousands of children throughout the world have been sexually abused by priests who have mostly been secretly dealt with by an ecclesiastical law that provides no real punishment and gives them ample opportunity to re-offend. Astoundingly, this has not been recognized as a human rights horror by the UN’s ineffectual Committee charged with oversight of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, or by states like the US and UK that issue reports tracking serious human rights violations, or even by organizations like Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch. This may, in part, be a result of the good works done by so many Catholics and by Catholic aid organizations like Caritas and CAFOD, which I admire and to which I pay tribute at the outset. But it is also a consequence of the mistaken recognition of this religious organization as a state, with powerful diplomatic connections to governments and a beatific head to whom political leaders make pilgrimages in order to be blessed. The notion that this man of peace and moral principle could turn a blind eye to an international crime defies their belief.
But there is no doubt that the scale of the sex abuse scandal came about because of directives from the Vatican – specifically from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – which required all sex abuse complaints to be processed in utter secrecy and withheld from local police and courts, under a Canon Law that was obsolete and ineffective and non-punitive. The Holy see claims the right to operate the system as one of its ‘statehood’ privileges, along with the exclusive right to speak and lobby at the un to promote its theological agenda: homosexuality is ‘evil’, and so is divorce; women have no right to choose, even to avoid pregnancies that result from rape or incest; IVF is wrong because it begins with masturbation; condom use, even to avoid AIDS within marriage, must never be countenanced. The political power associated with statehood has proved beguiling for a Pope who, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was the Prefect (head) of the CDF from 1981 to 2005 and it was on his watch that a vast amount of the sex abuse took place. How much he knew of its extent, and how offenders were moved around parishes and trafficked to other countries and hidden from local criminal justice, will not be clear until the CDF is required to open its files, although enough evidence has emerged to make his moral responsibility – and that of John Paul II – a matter for anxious debate. His legal responsibility is complicated by his claim to sovereign immunity, but it is surely worth asking, at a time when Benedict XVI has set his face against essential reform, whether the Pope should be the one man left in the world who is above the law.
Doughty Street Chambers
9 August 2010
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.