Abuse victims urge ICC to prosecute the pope

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Victims of sexual abuse by the clergy have asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to prosecute Pope Benedict XVI and other leading Vatican officials for crimes against humanity. A worldwide network of victims accuses the pontiff and three cardinals of aiding and abetting wide-scale rape and sexual violence against children by priests.

Human rights lawyer Pam Spees delivered boxes containing over 20,000 pages of evidence to the ICC today [Tuesday] and asked the prosecutor to begin an investigation. The complaint alleges that the pope and three cardinals - Angelo Sodano, Tarcisio Bertone and William Levada - deliberately covered up abuse by priests.

Victims speak out
At a press conference near The Hague, eight adults who were abused as children held up their childhood portraits and told the press the names of the Roman Catholic priests who had targeted them. All were members of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. They included victims from the USA, Germany, Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo. SNAP's lawyers say all the cases were kept secret by the Vatican in a cover-up that amounts to a crime against humanity.

[media:image]The victims present included Wilfried Fesselmann (43), who was abused at the age of 11 in Essen, Germany, by a priest who was subsequently transferred to Munich by then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). The case was known at the highest levels of the Vatican but the priest went unpunished until the church sexual abuse scandal erupted in Germany in 2010.

Vatican implicated

According to SNAP, the Vatican has tolerated and enabled a systematic and widespread practice of concealing sex crimes throughout the world for decades. Seldom has the Vatican meted out significant punishment to priests found guilty of abuse. The accused are routinely transferred to parishes where paedophile behavior continues. Sexual abuse is almost never reported to the police.

But the ICC is unlikely to pursue the case, according to Goran Sluiter, professor of international criminal law at the University of Amsterdam: 'The case doesn't stand a chance in my opinion.'

'Jurisdiction doubtful'
Professor Sluiter points out that the ICC can only try crimes committed after 1 July 2002, the date when it officially began operating as a court of law. "And even if the ICC could handle this case, I wonder whether these qualify as crimes against humanity," says Sluiter.

But SNAP's lawyer Pam Spees says she will provide ample evidence that the Vatican's concealment of rape and shielding of sexual abusers is widespread and systematic, and therefore bears the hallmarks of crimes against humanity.

Spees also asserts that the complaint falls well within the territorial jurisdiction of the ICC, even though the Vatican City State is not a party to the Rome statute that created the Hague court.

"By nature of the church's worldwide presence these acts are occurring every day in countries that are party to the Rome statute. But the court also has jurisdiction over people who are nationals of countries that are party to the statute. So to the extent that higher-level Vatican officials retain their citizenship in countries like Italy and Germany, the court has jurisdiction over these individuals."

Abuse in Africa
Highlighting the long reach of the Vatican, another victim addressed the press conference via a Skype connection from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Benjamin Kitobo (44) told journalists he was abused at the age of 13 by a Belgian priest at the Minor Seminary in Kanzenze, Komwezi in the DRC. The priest, Kitobo says, was never punished and is still working with children at a school near Kigali in neighboring Rwanda.

Recent cases
SNAP lawyer Pam Spees says the statute of the ICC is no obstacle to a case against the Vatican, because she has evidence of at least three abuse cases dating after 1 July 2002. These include the case of Megan Peterson (21), who was allegedly abused by a priest in Minnesota, USA in 2004-2005. The priest has been transferred to his native India and is overseeing schools in the diocese of Ootacamund (Tamil Nadu).

Megan told RNW her complaint was known in the highest echelons of the Vatican. "I know there were letters back and forth through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There were also prior allegations against him before he left. I called the diocese two weeks before he left and I was hung up on. He should have been arrested then."

Surprise visitor
Observers are doubtful that the complaint will lead to an indictment but it is not being ignored by the ICC. Following today's press conference, a victim support worker from the ICC introduced herself to the SNAP president and congratulated her on the work done so far by the victims' group and its lawyers. She declined to identify herself to the media, but SNAP members said her presence was an acknowledgment that their complaint is being taken seriously.