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Don’t be daft — you can’t put the Pope on trial

Benedict XVI’s handling of sex abuse cases is not above criticism, says John L. Allen Jr. But the campaign for him to be hauled before an international court is ill informed

14 April 2010

12:00 AM

14 April 2010

12:00 AM

Benedict XVI’s handling of sex abuse cases is not above criticism, says John L. Allen Jr. But the campaign for him to be hauled before an international court is ill informed

A Vatican spokesperson recently laughed off the campaign to issue an arrest warrant for Pope Benedict XVI when he visits the United Kingdom in September, describing it as an idea designed to make a splash in public opinion rather than something ‘serious’.

One understands that response. Whatever you think about Pope Benedict or Catholicism, it does seem a bit over-heated to suggest that international tribunals designed to prosecute mass-murderers and architects of genocide should go after someone who’s never even been accused of complicity in any instance of sexual abuse, but, at most, of failing to act swiftly enough to stop it.

Yet the ‘Put the Pope on trial’ drumbeat struck up last week by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson among others, nonetheless deserves a serious response, because it’s premised both on a misunderstanding of international law and a misreading of Benedict XVI’s record on the sexual abuse crisis facing the Catholic Church.

On the legal front, Robertson and others have suggested that the pope is not entitled to sovereign immunity as a head of state because the idea of statehood for the Vatican is a relic from the pre-modern era. Two basic mistakes are encoded in that assumption.

First, statehood belongs not to ‘the Vatican’ — a 108-acre physical location in Rome — but to the ‘Holy See’, the designation for the papacy as the central government of the Catholic Church. Second, the Holy See’s sovereign status is hardly in decline. Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the number of nations with which the Holy See enjoys diplomatic relations reached all-time highs, now totalling 178. There are only a handful of countries which do not recognise the Holy See, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, North Korea, Vietnam and Burma — presumably not a list that human rights champions such as Robertson would be eager to see the UK join.

Sovereignty is designed to protect the papacy from undue influence by any one nation, allowing the pope and his diplomatic corps to act as a neutral voice of conscience on the global stage. The Vatican successfully stopped Argentina and Chile from going to war in the late 1970s over the Beagle Islands, for example, and also helped negotiate a peace accord in Mozambique. Despite Robertson’s attempt to link the Holy See with the Bush administration because a Bush lawyer once confirmed its sovereign status in an American court, the Vatican’s legal independence also allowed Pope John Paul II and his envoys to emerge as the most important moral critics of the US-led war in Iraq in 2003.

By any reasonable standard, Pope Benedict XVI is the head of a sovereign entity and entitled to immunity under international law.

Ultimately, however, that’s not the reason why attempts to indict Benedict as the mastermind of a global conspiracy to protect paedophile priests miss the mark. If he truly were guilty as charged, then an effort to bulldoze through centuries of legal precedent to bring him to heel might be warranted.

In reality, those who have paid attention to this story over the past decade — as opposed to waking up to it only now — realise that no senior figure in the Catholic Church has done more to combat priestly sex abuse than the current pope.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II placed the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who is now Benedict XVI, in charge of the Vatican’s response to the crisis. Ratzinger was compelled carefully to study the case files of every priest credibly accused of sexual abuse anywhere in the world. That experience gave him a grasp of the depth and gravity of the problem that almost no one else, inside the Catholic Church or out, can claim.

From that point forward Ratzinger became a crusader — to such an extent that in the internal politics of the Vatican his office became seen as the beachhead for what some traditionalist critics regard as a draconian over-reaction to the crisis.

During the period 2001-2005, prior to his election to the papacy, Ratzinger kicked the Vatican’s wheels of justice into action, approving swift removal from ministry of priests accused of abuse. Under his leadership, the Vatican embraced the approach of the American Catholic bishops to sex abuse, premised on ‘zero tolerance’. That policy commits the Church to co-operation with police and other civil authorities — a point the Vatican recently reiterated in a ‘layman’s guide’ to Church procedures issued on 12 April.

As pope, Benedict XVI quickly brought the hammer down on a couple of high-profile Roman priests against whom accusations of abuse had been hanging around for decades, but who were long believed to be so well-connected as to be essentially untouchable. Later, Benedict became the first pope to meet with victims of sexual abuse, the first pope to offer a direct apology for the crisis in his own name, and the first pope effectively to break the Vatican’s wall of silence. Benedict has explicitly acknowledged that sexual abuse is both a grave sin, from a theological point of view, as well as a serious crime under civil law.

Critics are rightly outraged by the Catholic Church’s slow and ambivalent response to the crisis, but they’ve picked the wrong target in Benedict XVI. Serious reformers inside the Church who have worked on this issue for the past decade see him not as part of the problem, but the first pope to point toward a solution.

None of this is to say that Benedict’s record is above criticism. The cases from his past which have come to light in recent weeks have to be examined one by one, and in several the future pope’s role is quite marginal. Yet at least in the case of Fr Peter Hullermann, a German priest who came into the Archdiocese of Munich facing accusations of abuse while Ratzinger was in charge in 1980, and who went on to abuse other people, it seems clear that appropriate precautions were not taken. What the future pope knew at the time is almost irrelevant, because it happened on his watch.

Certainly the defensive tone coming from some senior papal aides, comparing criticism of Benedict to anti-Semitism or to ‘petty gossip’, has not helped the pope’s public image.

Nonetheless, proposals for hauling someone into court ought to be based on something more than bad PR strategies or individual cases wrenched out of the context of someone’s overall record. An indictment has to be based on facts, and the facts simply don’t support putting the pope in the dock.

John L. Allen Jr is the senior correspondent for the US-based National Catholic Reporter and author of The Rise of Benedict XVI (Penguin, 2005).

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