CAIRO – Victims of sexual abuses by Catholic clergy have filed a complaint with the International Court of Justice (ICC) to prosecute Pope Benedict XVI and top Vatican officials for crimes against humanity.
"Crimes against tens of thousands of victims, most of them children, are being covered up by officials at the highest level of the Vatican,” said Pamela Spees, attorney of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Reuters reported.
“In this case, all roads really do lead to Rome."
The New York-based rights group said it had lodged more than 20,000 pages of reports, policy papers and evidence of crimes committed by Catholic clergy against children and vulnerable adults.
“The high-level officials of the Catholic church who failed to prevent and punish these criminal actions have, to date, enjoyed absolute impunity,” says the complaint cited by The New York Times.
The Catholic Church has been rocked by a series of sexual abuse cover-up scandals in both Europe and the United States in recent years.
The ICC complaint includes the cases of two victims, who say the priests who sexually abused them simply moved to different countries and are still in ministry working with children, with the knowledge of church superiors.
It cites five cases in which priests have been accused of abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the United States.
The priests in these cases are from Belgium, India and the United States.
“National jurisdictions can’t really get their arms around this,” said Spees
“Prosecuting individual instances of child molestation or sexual assault has not gotten at the larger systemic problem here.”
In addition to Pope Benedict, the complaint asks the ICC to prosecute Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state; Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the previous secretary of state and the current dean of the College of Cardinals; and Cardinal William J. Levada, who is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office designated to receive cases of clergy sexual abuse that are forwarded by bishops.
“Accountability is the goal, and the I.C.C. makes the most sense, given that it’s a global problem,” said Spees.
The Vatican said it will not have an immediate comment on the case.
“The Office of the Prosecutor has received the documents,” Vatican spokeswoman Florence Olara said.
She added that the prosecutor’s office “will analyze ... and make a decision in due course.”
The Vatican is not a signatory to the ICC.
But countries as Italy, the Netherlands and Germany are signatories, which mean that their citizens are subject to ICC jurisdiction.
Pope Benedict is German-born and because a Pope retains his nationality when he also takes on Vatican nationality this could potentially expose him to ICC prosecution.
“It is a very slim avenue, but it’s an avenue nonetheless,” said Lorraine Smith at the International Bar Association, which monitors the ICC.
“But there is still the issue of the timing of the offences.”
It is not yet clear whether the accusations against the Vatican will fit the ICC mandate.
“Crimes against humanity means acts that are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population,” said Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association.
“What you’re looking at is really a policy, in which the government or the authorities are planning the attack,” he said.
The ICC is the world's first permanent war crimes court.
It has jurisdiction over the crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It lists rape, sexual violence, assault and torture as crimes against humanity.
“When you look at the concept of why and how the I.C.C. was created, I just don’t think this fits,” Ellis said.“But the filing does something that’s important. It raises awareness.”
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