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Sex Abuse Victims Target Pope in International Courts

New York Times September 13, 2011 — Two American advocacy groups — the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests — filed a complaint today in international courts against top-ranking Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict XVI, for allegedly abetting and covering up the rape and sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. The complaint is urging the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate the pope and the Vatican, under the grounds that they committed “crimes against humanity.” The biggest question, however, is whether the international court has jurisdiction to prosecute.

The 80-page filing compiled by lawyers and abuse victims from the U.S. and Europe is urging the International Criminal Court in The Hague, (capital city of the South Holland providence of the Netherlands) to investigate and prosecute cases of priest child molestation. The complaint is alleging the pope and several Catholic church officials knew about the crimes, failed to prevent them, and aided in the cover up.

It was an unprecedented and bold step to hold the pope and the Vatican accountable in international court for the countless sexual crimes filed against Catholic priests.

An except from the complaint said:

“The high-level officials of the Catholic church who failed to prevent and punish these criminal acts have, to date, enjoyed absolute impunity.”

Lawyers and survivors of sexual abuse believe international prosecution is necessary because the prosecution of individual Catholic priests in various countries has done little to prevent continuing sexual abuse crimes and cover-ups. In particular, two victims say the priests who sexually abused them simply moved to different countries and continued their ministry with children, all under the knowing supervision of their superiors.

Meanwhile, Vatican officials maintain that the decisions pertaining to child abuse cases fall on the shoulders of local bishops, not the Vatican staff. Vatican officials state that the Catholic church is not as centralized as people think.

As the complaint is likely to fall outside of the international court’s jurisdiction, it is unlikely to amount to much more than a simple complaint. Yet, it does serve in turning global attention to the sexual assaults. As Mark Ellis, executive director of the London-based International Bar Association said:

“Crimes against humanity means acts that are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population. What you’re looking at is really a policy, in which the government or the authorities are planning the attack. When you look at the concept of why and how the I.C.C. was created, I just don’t think this fits. But the filing does something that’s important. It raises awareness.”

The International Criminal Court may only prosecute crimes that fall under the court’s mandate to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, which occurred after July 1, 2002 — the day the court was founded. It currently has jurisdiction in 117 countries, including Italy, Germany and Belgium. As of yet, it does not have jurisdiction in the Vatican or the United States. This is problematic, considering the five cases cited in Tuesday’s filing occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the U.S. and by priests from Belgium, India and the U.S.

Some experts believe the sexual assault crimes were “sufficiently heinous and widespread” enough to be taken to the international court. Other lawyers argue individual instances of child abuse prosecution are not getting at a larger, more systematic problem that is a global problem.

While the court will likely do a preliminary investigation to determine whether or not it has jurisdiction, it probably will not come to fruition past that.

Complaints were filed against Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, previous secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano (and current dean of the College of Cardinals), and Cardinal William J. Levada, who is the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office designated to receive and review clergy sexual assault cases forwarded by bishops.

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