Arresting the Pope

Will someone really arrest Pope Ratzinger? The noted atheist authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens hope so. Here, Andy Armitage looks at what may seem an audacious exercise.

It’s a satisfying picture: Pope Benedict XVI sitting in a police cell awaiting charge, accused of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. It probably won’t happen. Well, it won’t happen.

And it won’t happen because the powerful mostly find a way out of situations like this. In an article in the Guardian, the writer George Monbiot (The Age of Consent) quotes a short but compelling verse: 

They hang the man and flog the woman

That steals the goose from off the common

But let the greater villain loose

That steals the common from the goose.

’Twas ever thus, alas!

However, the prominent atheist authors Richard Dawkins (The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution) and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) are at least giving it a go. They are going for the “greater villain”. They’ve asked human-rights barristers to make a case for arresting Joseph Ratzinger (The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion), a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI, on charges of covering up sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

And, though not apparently related to this campaign, there’s an “Arrest the Pope” Facebook group, too.

It emerged in early April that a 1985 letter bearing Ratzinger’s signature put the unity of the church before dealing with a priest who had tied up two boys and sexual abused them in California.

The Vatican claims Ratzinger is immune from prosecution because he is a head of state. But he is not the head of a state with full United Nations membership, and so, say Dawkins and Hitchens, he does not hold immunity and could, therefore, be arrested when he steps onto British soil. (The Vatican has what is known as “permanent observer” status at the UN.)

In March, according to the Guardian, Ratzinger said he would not be “intimidated” by “petty gossip”. While he didn’t apply this directly to the scandal, he did say, while preaching in St Peter’s Square on Palm Sunday, that faith in God led “towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion”.

Central register

“As Benedict spoke,” says the Guardian’s website of 28 March, with a version in the print edition the following day, “the president of Switzerland, Doris Leuthard, called for a central register of paedophile priests to keep them away from children. In Austria, the archbishop of Vienna announced the creation of a commission funded by the church, but without church representatives, to look into Austrian abuse claims.”

Doris Leuthard
Doris Leuthard

So there is little doubt that this is a crisis writ large. It is the biggest catastrophe Benedict has faced or, probably, will face. It has provided a very loud and perhaps salutary slap in the face – and probably several other places – for the ubiquitous Catholic Church, reminding it that it no longer has the power it once did, and that people are actually willing, nay, itching, to stand up and speak out against it.

In the US alone, some 11,750 allegations of child sex abuse have so far featured in actions settled by archdioceses. Recently, the Pope deigned to apologise to victims and their families in Ireland, after a damning report from a commission headed by Judge Murphy that found not only that sexual abuse was “endemic” in boys’ institutions but that the church hierarchy protected the guilty and, although they knew they might reoffend, allowed them to take up new positions teaching other children after their earlier victims had been sworn to secrecy.

Perhaps the move by Dawkins and Hitchens, is the most audacious act yet. It is not hard to imagine Ratzinger blinking with shock, doing a double-take, and feeling baffled by how this protective shell that he has had around him like an impenetrable cocoon for most of his adult life, this barrier against the great Out There, could crack and crumble. Perhaps he feels threatened. Let us hope so. He deserves nothing better.

Threshold of immunity

But can the arrest ploy work? Mark Stephens, a solicitor working with the noted barrister Geoffrey Robertson towards this end, seems optimistic:

“I’m convinced we can get over the threshold of immunity. The Vatican is not recognised as a state in international law. People assume that it has existed for time immemorial but it was a construct of Mussolini, and when the Vatican first applied to become a member of the UN, the US said no. So as a sop they were given the status of permanent observers rather than full members.”

And it became the last enduring legacy of Italy’s Fascist era.

Stephens reckons there are approaches to getting Ratzinger into the dock. “One is that we apply for a warrant to the International Criminal Court,” he says. “Alternatively, criminal proceedings could be brought here: either a public prosecution brought by the Crown Prosecution Service or a private prosecution. That would require at least one victim to come forward who is either from this jurisdiction or was abused here. The third option is for individuals to lodge civil claims.”

Geoffrey Robertson
Geoffrey Robertson

Stephens has said he’s been approached by seven wealthy people who had given money to the Catholic church and, says the Guardian, “were dismayed their money had not only been used to fund abuse but also buy the silence of victims”. He thinks these people could potentially sue the Pope.

In another Guardian article (2 April), Robertson writes:

In legal actions against Catholic archdioceses in the US it has been alleged that the same conduct reflected Vatican policy as approved by Cardinal Ratzinger (as the pope then was) as late as November 2002. Sexual assaults were regarded as sins that were subject to church tribunals, and guilty priests were sent on a “pious pilgrimage” while oaths of confidentiality were extracted from their victims.

As for the Pope’s reference to the “petty gossip of dominant opinion”, Robertson says the so-called Holy See “can no longer ignore international law, which now counts the widespread or systematic sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity. The anomalous claim of the Vatican to be a state – and of the pope to be a head of state and hence immune from legal action – cannot stand up to scrutiny.”

It shouldn’t surprise us that President George W Bush intervened to protect the Catholic Church in a 2005 test case in Texas. The case folded because of Bush’s intercession: he agreed to claim head-of-state immunity on Ratzinger’s behalf. A Bush lawyer, John B Bellinger III, certified that Ratzinger was immune from suit “as the head of a foreign state”.

Extinguished by invasion

However, because of Bellinger’s notorious defence of Bush-administration torture policies, his opinion on papal immunity is “even more questionable”.

“It hinges on the assumption,” writes Robertson, “that the Vatican, or its metaphysical emanation, the Holy See, is a state. But the papal states were extinguished by invasion in 1870 and the Vatican was created by fascist Italy in 1929 when Mussolini endowed this tiny enclave – 0.17 of a square mile containing 900 Catholic bureaucrats – with ‘sovereignty in the international field . . . in conformity with its traditions and the exigencies of its mission in the world’.”

So it’s entirely laughable that statehood can suddenly be created, just like that, by such a unilateral declaration. Robertson uses Iran as an example, since it could decide to make Qom a state overnight, or the UK could provide the same favour for, say, Canterbury.

The Vatican, then, does not hold the same status at the UN as, say, the UK or USA does, although, with its permanent-observer status, it has been a signatory to certain matters of legislation, including – and the irony won’t be lost on many – the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It can also speak and vote in UN conferences, and has, of course, promoted its own dogma on abortion, homosexuality and contraception – as you would expect.

Trump card

Of course, it’s ridiculous that this organisation should have any such status. It’s a church. It’s an organisation, not a country. Or should the United Kingdom put forward the Church of England as a state, perhaps using Lambeth Palace and its territory? After all, in addition to senior advisers to the Archbishop of Canterbury and all the administrative staff, the palace is “serviced by a building manager, steward, cook, gardeners, gatekeepers and cleaners, all of whom take care of the historic building and its grounds”, according to its own website. A few “nationals” of the State of Lambeth there, then.

Robertson hopes his trump card, though, will be the International Criminal Court (ICC), because head-of-state immunity provides no protection there.

“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,” Robertson writes.

“It has been held to cover the recruitment of children as soldiers or sex slaves. 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.”

Meanwhile, the Vatican has tried to persuade its critics that homosexuality is behind the scandal. Forget the fact that some of the abuse has been carried out against girls, it’s homosexuality and not, say, celibacy that is to blame.

Homosexuality–paedophilia link

Yet celibacy puts a stopper on hormonal imperatives, natural urges that we all feel. If you prevent the natural outlet for those urges, is it not conceivable that they will find vent in other ways – ways that may not be acceptable?

Earlier this month, the Pope’s number two, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, ensured more hatred against gays in Chile, where, according to the popular online publication Pink News, he told a press conference: “Many psychologists and psychiatrists have shown that there is no link between celibacy and paedophilia but many others have shown, I have recently been told, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and paedophilia.”

Tarcisio Bertone

But, if he wants to put forward a relationship between homosexuality and paedophilia, there has to be a corresponding relationship between heterosexuality and abuse of young girls. Am I simplifying it too much? I don’t think so. If a priest is heterosexual and has paedophile tendencies – or, at any rate, tendencies towards minors, even if it doesn’t literally amount to paedophilia – then is not his heterosexuality connected with his actions?

It may seem obvious to say so, and it is. And that renders it meaningless. If there is more abuse against boys than girls by Catholic priests, it could be because the seminaries are all-male and are likely to attract a disproportionate number of gay men, even if they are sincere in wishing to stick to vows of celibacy. So there are, for a start, more gay men than straight men ready to be sent out into the world as priests. Add enforced celibacy into the mix, and you have problems.

This doesn’t excuse the behaviour, of course, but it has to be said in order to go some way to countering the nonsense that comes from Cardinal Bertone and his ilk.

It is to be sincerely hoped that the Dawkins–Hitchens offensive pays off. It would be good to think that the Vatican might, one day soon, be stripped of even its limited status within the UN.

After all, were any other organisation known to be bursting at the seems with paedophiles and other abusers of young people in its care, police would have long ago raided its offices, seized its computers, interviewed its staff after dawn raids.

Related links
George Monbiot (official website)
Richard Dawkins (official website)
The Christopher Hitchens Web (official website)
Pope Benedict XVI (Wikipedia entry)
“Arrest the Pope” (Facebook group)