Thursday, September 15, 2011

Is the Pope guilty of crimes against humanity?

Over the past two decades, there has been a growing awareness of child sex abuse committed by Catholic priests, and of coverups by the Catholic hierarchy designed to protect the reputation of their institution. These are serious crimes. The coverups constitute an international conspiracy, and arguably a policy of tolerance of such crimes (particularly in light of the way some abusers were moved, allowing them to abuse again and again, or sheltered by the Vatican and protected from extradition to face justice in the countries where they had abused). But is it a crime against humanity?

That's the contention of the US-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, who is trying to take the Pope and other Vatican officials to the International Criminal Court:

The submission, lodged at The Hague on Tuesday, accuses the four men not only of failing to prevent or punish perpetrators of rape and sexual violence but also of engaging in the "systematic and widespread" practice of concealing sexual crimes around the world.

It includes individual cases of abuse where letters and documents between Vatican officials and others show a refusal to co-operate with law enforcement agencies seeking to pursue suspects, according to the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a US-based organisation that represents the claimants.


According to the document filed by CCR, the pope, as head of the Catholic church, is ultimately responsible for the sexual abuse of children by priests and for the cover-ups of that abuse. The group argues that he and others have "direct and superior responsibility" for the crimes of those ranked below them, similar to a military chain of command.

Its a compelling argument. Rape and sexual violence are defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity if "committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack". A "widespread or systematic attack" means either "government policy... [or] a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority". A state which allowed its officials to rape and abuse children, then covered up for them, sheltered them, and generally took every step possible to prevent them being held accountable for those crimes would undoubtedly be considered to have tolerated or condoned those offences and to have committed such an attack. The Catholic Church, which is also a government, and used its government powers in the course of that coverup, should be held to the same standard.

Unfortunately, jurisdictional issues mean that the case will likely never be heard. The Vatican, like the US, is not a party to the ICC, and so a case can only be brought with the consent of the UN Security Council. Which isn't very likely. Once again, that hole in international law is allowing criminals to escape justice.