Two recent news stories raise the question of whether or not Pope Benedict XVI could potentially face criminal charges if he proceeds with his trip the the United Kingdom later in the year. The first is from the Los Angeles Times and it raises the issue of why the Vatican and specifically the Pope should not be afforded immunity as a sovereign nation/head of state. The reality is that the Roman Catholic Church is a religion, not a sovereign nation, and that the Vatican does not meet the definition generally applied to what constitutes a nation within the meaning of international law. As such, the Pope should not be allowed to claim immunity from prosecution because he is a "head of state."
The second story was in the Sunday Times of London and focuses upon the planned effort of Richard Dawkins to have Benedict XVI arrested when he arrives in Britain in September - unless, of course, Benedict cancels the trip. Before looking at the two stories, it is helpful to look at some self-explanatory legal definitions of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and molestation within the criminal law context.
Conspiracy: An agreement by two or more people to commit an illegal act or to commit a legal act using illegal means. Proving conspiracy requires evidence that the parties agreed to the plan before taking action.
Obstruction of Justice: An attempt to interfere with the administration of the courts, the judicial system, or law enforcement officers, including threatening witnesses, improper conversations with jurors, hiding evidence, or interfering with an arrest. Such activity is a crime.
Molestation: The crime of sexual acts with children up to the age of 18, including touching of private parts, exposure of genitalia, taking of pornographic pictures, rape, inducement of sexual acts with the molester or with other children, and variations of these acts.
The Los Angeles Times piece looks at the ridiculous manner in which the Vatican claims to be a sovereign nation and that the Pope is a head of state and, therefore, immune from criminal prosecution. The article makes - in my view - a convincing argument and set forth why Benedict XVI's claims of immunity need to be rejected. Here are some highlights:
[I]s the spiritual leader of the world's Roman Catholics really a "head of state" as well? Benedict XVI is the head the church's governing body -- known as the Holy See -- which claims many of the privileges of a sovereign country. In recent decades the Holy See has welcomed ambassadors, signed international treaties and used its status to influence developments at the United Nations.
That the Holy See is often treated as a state is deeply troubling, for several reasons. For one thing, the Catholic Church isn't truly a sovereign nation; to allow it to play one on the international stage perverts the meaning of statehood. Moreover, the church's claim to statehood gives it even more political influence than it would otherwise wield and grants outsized power to only one of the world's many religions. And its claim is particularly worrisome now that the church -- embroiled in a disturbing scandal that has reached from Boston to Berlin -- is claiming the sort of immunity enjoyed by prime ministers and presidents.
This persists despite its [the Vatican's] lack of most of the key legal characteristics of statehood. It's true that Vatican City runs a popular post office and mints its own currency. But international law requires that a "state" have four attributes: territory, a permanent population, a functioning government and the ability to engage in international relations.
As to the question of territory, there exists only the small parcel of land known as Vatican City. But as any visitor knows, Vatican City is in the middle of Rome and is little more than half the size of the Mall in Washington, D.C. In any event, the Holy See continues to claim that its international status is based on its religious authority, not its territorial enclave. To say that Vatican City possesses a permanent population of the sort envisioned by international law is even more of a stretch.
For decades the strange practice of treating the Catholic Church as a state has been bad for women's equality, gay rights and reproductive freedom. The Holy See's fictive statehood allows it to promote its retrograde views on gender and sex in diplomatic settings and during treaty negotiations. Now, the unfolding sexual abuse scandal reveals another dark side of the Holy See's claim to statehood: the extraordinary immunities claimed by the pope in the face of conspiracy accusations that span the globe.
Turning to the Times of London story, the theory on which the Pope could be criminally prosecuted is laid out - again in a argument that seems to make straight forward legal sense. Frankly, I hope Dawkins and his allies are successful. Clearly, Benedict XVI and the Catholic hierarchy engaged in a conspiracy to obstruct justice and shield predatory priest from appropriate criminal prosecution by civil authorities. There is little question that I or any readers who engaged in such a conspiracy to cover up rampant sexual abuse of minors on a global scale would find ourselves indicted before we knew what had hit us. Here are some highlights:
RICHARD DAWKINS, the atheist campaigner, is planning a legal ambush to have the Pope arrested during his state visit to Britain "for crimes against humanity". Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the atheist author, have asked human rights lawyers to produce a case for charging Pope Benedict XVI over his alleged cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The pair believe they can exploit the same legal principle used to arrest Augusto Pinochet, the late Chilean dictator, when he visited Britain in 1998.
Dawkins and Hitchens believe the Pope would be unable to claim diplomatic immunity from arrest because, although his tour is categorised as a state visit, he is not the head of a state recognised by the United Nations. They have commissioned the barrister Geoffrey Robertson and Mark Stephens, a solicitor, to present a justification for legal action. The lawyers believe they can ask the Crown Prosecution Service to initiate criminal proceedings against the Pope, launch their own civil action against him or refer his case to the International Criminal Court.
"There is every possibility of legal action against the Pope occurring," said Stephens. "Geoffrey and I have both come to the view that the Vatican is not actually a state in international law. It is not recognised by the UN, it does not have borders that are policed and its relations are not of a full diplomatic nature."
Andrew Sullivan sums up the situation well from a morality perspective when he stated as follows on his blog:
The Pope cannot blame the local bishops this time - they desperately tried to get the priest fired. He cannot claim he was out of the loop: his signature is on the letter. He cannot get an underling to take the fall: it's his name and his office behind the unconscionable delay and behind the actual, despicably callous and self-serving reasons to protect a man who tied children up and raped them. It's over now.
When we look at this Pope we see a man who knew that one of the priests he had authority to fire had restrained and raped children. Yet he did nothing for years, and finally sided with the priest. He had more sympathy for the relatively young age of the rapist, rather than the innocence and trauma of the raped children. We see a man utterly corrupted by power and institutional loyalty. So when does he resign?