Arrest the Pope: New Atheist Effort to Seek Justice in Sexual Abuse Crisis Should Be Applauded

Eric Reitan presents the opposing view here — ed.

The Daily Telegraph* is probably not the best source of analysis of a growing body of legal opinion that the Roman Catholic Church, as either state or religion, should be subject to prosecution by the International Criminal Court for “crimes against humanity.” The paper did, however, give the idea a boost when it published an article claiming that Richard Dawkins wants to arrest the Pope for his role in the cover up of the sexual abuse of children when he comes to Britain in September this year.

The Telegraph set up the Church’s favorite victim scenario: angry atheists (in this case Dawkins and cohort Christopher Hitchens) ready to crucify the nearest Pope on whatever flimsy grounds that further their goal of discrediting religion. What Hitchens and Dawkins have in mind is more serious and in my opinion more likely to cause church leaders to sit up and pay attention than all the polite, respectful pleas by those inside the church for “compassion” and “justice.”

Dawkins and Hitchens have done what countless victims have had to do to get some small bit of justice. They hired a lawyer and a very good one: Geoffrey Robertson. Robertson has participated in high-profile libel cases, including defending the UK Guardian against Neil Hamilton MP, and he was threatened by terrorists for representing Salman Rushdie. He has appeared in civil liberties cases before the European Court of Human Rights (among others), and he sat as an appeal judge at the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone until 2007.

Robertson claims “the Holy See can no longer ignore international law, which now counts the widespread or systematic sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity.” Moreover, he challenges the Vatican’s claim of diplomatic immunity from legal action. While Robertson is not the first lawyer to make these claims, he may have a better chance to get them heard in an international court than others have had. US lawyers attempted to depose the Vatican in a Texas abuse case in 2005 and were rebuffed when President Bush certified that Benedict was immune from suit because the Pope was “head of a foreign state.” Irish barrister Simon Kennedy, who represented sexual abuse victims in that country, was unable to charge the papal nuncio in that country in a sex abuse case he brought on the same grounds.

Things may be quite different in the International Criminal Court (ICC) where charges can be brought against both states and de facto authorities. The ICC has already indicted one head of state, President Omar al Bashir of the Sudan on counts for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Robertson notes that:

The ICC Statute definition of a crime against humanity includes rape and sexual slavery and other similarly inhumane acts causing harm to mental or physical health, committed against civilians on a widespread or systematic scale, if condoned by a government or a de facto authority. If acts of sexual abuse by priests are not isolated or sporadic, but part of a wide practice both known to and unpunished by their de facto authority then they fall within the temporal jurisdiction of the ICC—if that practice continued after July 2002, when the court was established.

And the cover-ups have continued. Just last week, the AP published a detailed investigative piece alleging that “in an investigation spanning 21 countries across six continents, The Associated Press found 30 cases of priests accused of abuse who were transferred or moved abroad. Some escaped police investigations. Many had access to children in another country, and some abused again.”

A priest in Canada was convicted of sexual abuse and then moved to France, where he was convicted of abuse again in 2005. Massachusetts priest Father Pezzotti was credibly accused in several cases of abuse, one of which settled for $175,000 in 1993. However, from 1970 to 2003, Pezzotti was in Brazil, where he worked with the Kayapo Indians. Pezzotti went to Italy in 2003, but returned to Brazil in 2008. A few months later, the man he had sexually abused in the United States saw photos of him on the internet and complained to the church. The priest was quickly sent back to Italy.

“Father Vijay Vhaskr Godugunuru was forced to return to India and then was transferred to Italy after pleading no contest to assaulting a 15-year-old girl while visiting friends in Bonifay, Fla,” according to the AP. “He now ministers to a parish in a medieval town of about 4,000 in Tuscany, where he hears confessions, celebrates Mass and works with children.”

SNAP, The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests is pushing for action against four former St. Louis clerics, all accused of child sexual abuse, two of whom now still work for the Church overseas.

Fr. William A. Christensen heads a nonprofit in Bangladesh and Fr. Charles H. Miller works in Rome. Two months ago, a Post Dispatch column about a Bangladesh service project (called the Institute for Integrated Rural Development) mentioned that Christensen is still working there, despite a civil lawsuit that was filed against him in 2002. And last year, the San Antonio (TX) Express News reported that Miller “was forced to resign two years ago after a (credible) claim that he sexually abused (a St. Louis teenager), but was sent to his superiors to live and work for the church in Rome.

SNAP, and now Dawkins, et al are frequently criticized as “too angry” or “too radical.” Their insistence that the Catholic Church and its leaders have no more immunity from criticism or accountability than other institutions is thought to make faithful Catholics feel their faith is threatened. These critics ignore the fact that church leaders have treated with disdain every attempt to hold them accountable. The exposure of widespread sexual abuse throughout Europe—first in Ireland, then in Austria, Germany and other countries—is the third such round of endemic abuse and cover-up. The first was in the 1980s in the United States arising out of charges of abuse in Louisiana; clean-up was, of course, promised. Those charges were followed by the 2002 Boston Globe exposé; clean up was again promised, but the bishops and cardinals responsible are, in one way or another, still in charge and few priests have actually been defrocked.

The European crisis is perhaps the most threatening to the political Church—the Church that claims statehood. Benedict is well aware that Europe is secular and far less deferential to the claims of special rights, and the freedom to disregard European laws it does not like. At the same time, the Church gets much more support from the European states than it does from America.

In a number of countries, Catholic schools are subsidized by the state and in some Catholic agencies even receive a defined share of taxes for overseas development projects. The European Union and the Overseas Development agencies also provide large amounts of money for Catholic projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There have been sporadic attempts to cut off such funds for various reasons and anger at the church over the sex abuse crisis is likely to strengthen those arguments. Atheist and secular groups are far more likely to lead those campaigns than progressive Catholics.

Liberal members of the European Parliament just called on the president of the Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, to raise the issue of child sexual abuse with the Pope. Buzek was spared the task when Icelandic volcanic ash caused the cancellation of his audience with the Pope. Reacting to dismissive statements by the Vatican, the EU Observer reported:

Liberal group leader and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt in a letter on Thursday to Mr. Buzek, EU commission head Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy said: ‘I ask you to react to these declarations, condemning them in the most unambiguous terms and to make representations to the Catholic church leadership, to ensure that truth and justice are brought to victims of paedophile crime.’

“If he [Mr. Buzek] doesn’t raise the issue, he will have some explaining to do,” Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ’t Veld added.

It has only been in reaction to media, political pressure, the Irish governmental reports, and lawsuits that Church leaders have made any changes at all. At the moral level, the decency level, there is a deep sickness that pervades the way in which Popes and other Church leaders think about this issue. Every statement confirms their ambivalence about whether or not pedophilia is really that bad.

Pope Benedict is, very likely, no more or less guilty of turning a blind eye than was John Paul II or Cardinal Law—or for that matter the local parish priests or Jesuits, Franciscans or Christian Brothers who did not abuse but lived in the same houses with those who did. The reality is that a lot of priests knew someone who abused a child and for complex psychological reasons looked the other way.

If the only ones who will do anything about it are people like Dawkins, Hitchens, Robertson, and those who survived, then more power to them.

*The Daily Telegraph is indeed not a Rupert Murdoch property as this article originally claimed. It is owned by the identical twin Barclay brothers, though the sentiment remains true that the conservative daily is probably not the best source for critical analysis of the Roman Catholic Church. 

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