The Case against Vatican Power: The Catholic Church Claims the Privileges of Statehood, Which Gives It Huge Advantages over Other Religious Institutions - and Allows the Protection of Paedophile Priests under Canon Law

By Robertson, Geoffrey | New Statesman (1996), September 6, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Case against Vatican Power: The Catholic Church Claims the Privileges of Statehood, Which Gives It Huge Advantages over Other Religious Institutions - and Allows the Protection of Paedophile Priests under Canon Law


Robertson, Geoffrey, New Statesman (1996)


The Pope will arrive in Britain on 16 September in two capacities. He will emerge at Edinburgh resplendent in his regalia of head of state ("a red satin mozzetta trimmed with fur") to meet the Queen, who must, according to Vatican etiquette, dress in black - only Catholic queens can wear white in the pontifical presence. He must then change into more modest robes to conduct an open-air Mass in Glasgow as head of the Roman Catholic Church. In that capacity, he deserves the warmest of welcomes and the utmost respect. But as head of a state - sovereign of the Vatican City State and the Holy See -it is time to point out that this emperor really has no clothes.

The Catholic Church is the only religion that is permitted - under international law as interpreted by the Foreign Office, and at the United Nations - to claim the privileges of sovereignty and statehood. These are considerable: both the Vatican and its leader have immunity from civil or criminal actions for the damage that they do to others - whether by trafficking paedophile priests or by condoning fraud at the Vatican Bank (suspects can avoid European arrest warrants by staying within the "inviolable" walls of the Holy City).

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At the UN, which has wrongly allowed the Holy See to do everything a nation state may do except vote in the General Assembly (where it is nonetheless accorded six seats from which to speak and lobby), the Church's advantages over other faith groups are enormous. At conferences, it lobbies relentlessly (usually with the help of Libya and Iraq) against any humanitarian action that might condone the "heinous evils" of abortion - even after incest or rape - or homosexuality, and attempts to sabotage the distribution of condoms, including to married couples, to contain the plague of HIV/Aids.

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At meetings to settle agendas relating to UN conferences on social or economic issues, Holy See diplomats have been exploiting their "statehood" to oppose the inclusion of any language that sends a shudder up their spiritual spine -"gender" and "gender equality", "sexual orientation", "unwanted pregnancy", "unsafe abortion", "sex education", "reproductive health", "reproductive rights", "contraception", "sexual health", "couples and individuals" and even "lifestyle". Sovereign statehood brings huge advantages over other faith groups and nongovernmental organisations, which the Church uses to oppose the sexual and health rights of everyone and the rights of women in particular.

But this is not the only illegitimate consequence of regarding Vatican City - or its government, the Holy See - as a state. As part of its "sovereignty", the Vatican claims the right, in all states where its Church operates, to deal with its priests and other "religious" under canon law - the set of ecclesiastical rules that includes disciplinary provisions for offences ranging from ordaining women and promoting heresy to having sex with children.

While there can be no objection to an organisation disciplining members for a breach of arcane rules, there is every objection when those breaches amount to serious crimes and the organisation claims the right to deal with them internally without reporting them to the police. And that is precisely what the Vatican has been doing: instead of reporting to the law-enforcement authorities those priests whom it knows to be guilty of raping children, and to be likely to rape more children in the future, it has been dealing with them under canon law, which demands utmost "pontifical" secrecy, moving them to other parishes and other countries and letting them off with admonitions and unenforceable "penances" (usually to say prayers for their victims).

On occasion, they are accorded a canon law "trial" under a medieval written procedure run by fellow priests, which permits neither cross-examination and medical examination nor DNA testing.

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