International Court Urged to Investigate Vatican

By Roberts, Tom | National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2011 | Go to article overview

International Court Urged to Investigate Vatican


Roberts, Tom, National Catholic Reporter


Lawyers Sept. 13 filed a petition with the International Criminal Court on behalf of clergy sex abuse victims, urging an investigation of high-ranking Roman Catholic church leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, charging that the widespread sexual abuse by priests in various countries and the handling of those cases by bishops and authorities in the Vatican constitute human rights abuses.

The communication filed with the court in The Hague in the Netherlands is comparable to the filing of a complaint with a district attorney's office in the United States, said Pamela C. Spees, senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based organization that has its roots in the civil rights era and seeks to use law to effect social change.

The center filed the complaint in cooperation with SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which advocates for the rights of sex abuse victims. The complaint names Benedict, both in his current capacity and as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, when he was head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has responsibility for handling sex abuse cases; the former and current Vatican secretaries of state, Angelo Sodano, who held the office from 1991 to 2006, and Tarcisio Bertone, who was appointed Sodano's successor; and Cardinal William Levada, former archbishop of San Francisco, who was appointed by Benedict to succeed him in the doctrinal congregation. In a Sept. 9 interview, Spees said the center argues that similar patterns have emerged time and again in various countries as a result of what she termed "a culture of sexual violence within the church." While most of the investigations of clergy sex abuse have occurred in discrete locations and were confined to individual dioceses, she said, "when you zoom out and see the same policies and practices" occurring internationally and "when you look at what's been documented and the brutality of it," the justification for an international investigation becomes clear.

An investigation is also justifiable, the lawyers argue, under the Rome Statute, the 1998 treaty that established the International Criminal Court as a result of increasing concern about wartime crimes, including rape and other forms of sexual violence. The Center for Constitutional Rights maintains that the widespread incidence of sexual violence by Catholic clergy and the hierarchy's attempt to keep it secret satisfies the statute's definition of attacks against a civilian population.

SNAP has worked with the center for the past 18 months, translating its vast store of details about sex abuse cases into evidence supporting an international case, according to Barbara Blaine, a Chicago attorney and founder of SNAP. Blaine was first abused by a priest when she was in the seventh grade.

In an initial filing with the court last May--a communication establishing that the organization planned to file a far more detailed brief in the future--the center made its argument for use of the International Criminal Court. Rape, said the letter, "constitutes a crime within jurisdiction of the court." The center argues that "rape and other forms of sexual violence ... are serious offenses and acts of violence and should also be investigated and prosecuted as forms of torture."

"Crimes against tens of thousands of victims, most of them children, are being covered up by officials at the highest level of the Vatican. In this case, all roads really do lead to Rome," said Spees in a statement posted on the center's Web site Sept. 13. "These men operate with impunity and without accountability. The Vatican officials charged in this case are responsible for rape and other sexual violence and for the physical and psychological torture of victims around the world both through command responsibility and through direct cover-up of crimes. …

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