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USA: Bringing the Catholic Church to Account for Crimes against Humanity

Tuesday 31 January 2012, by siawi3

Source: AWID

In September 2011, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and the US-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a landmark case with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and prosecute Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican Secretary of State, and two Cardinals for rape, other forms of sexual violence, and torture as crimes against humanity.

The case presents 22,000 pages of supporting testimony, case studies, declarations, letters, statements and photographs. It also includes the findings of multiple commissions and reports, such as the Cloyne Commission, the Winter Commission, the Ferns Report, the Ryan Commission, the Hughes Inquiry, the Westchester Report, the Report of the Philadelphia Grand Jury, the Suffolk County and the Boston Report to name a few.

Based on some estimates it is thought that there were around 100,000 cases of sexual abuse by clergy just between 1981 and 2005[1]; if cases from Africa, Latin America and elsewhere are added, the worldwide total is likely to be many times higher.

Despite the weight of evidence, with a perpetrator as powerful as the Catholic Church, victims and survivors of rape and sexual abuse have stood little chance of ensuring accountability and preventing further harm. According to Pam Spees, the CCR lawyer who filed the complaint with the ICC, no national system has been willing or able to prosecute high-level Vatican officials for their direct or “command” responsibility for these offences.

Ironically, the centralized and hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church, used so effectively in cover-ups, also provides the strongest evidence of violations. The case establishes that high-level Vatican officials either knew or should have known about the brutality being perpetuated by its members. During the period in question, current pope Joseph Ratzinger headed the “Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith” (CDF)—the entity to which all sexual violations within the Church must be reported.

As the CDF head, Ratzinger is accused of ordering, encouraging, facilitating, or otherwise abetting the cover-up of credible claims of sexual violence. The cover-up included obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, “priest-shifting”, refusing to cooperate with civil authorities, victim-blaming, rewarding cover-ups and punishing whistle blowers.

Megan Peterson, a survivor of clergy abuse herself and one of the four individual complainants in the case, has been a strong and vocal advocate for the Church to be held to account for the crimes it has perpretrated. Asked why she thinks the abuse has been so pervasive, she replied, “I think the weight of ’religion’, has played the biggest part in this history. People don’t want to go against their faith; their faith is represented directly by the clergy and by the Vatican, and so they do not speak out against their abusers for fear that to do so would be basically speaking out against their own faith.”

The prosecutor at the ICC must now decide whether the complaint submitted meets its jurisdiction and scope, and if it has the political will to take on one of the highest religious authorities in the world. Whatever the ultimate decision is, the filing of this complaint is a significant step towards holding the Catholic Church to the same legal standards as everyone else.

[1] Geoffrey Robertson, “The Case against Vatican Power,” New Statesman, 8 Sept. 2010.

For related articles treating this subject in greater detail, please see: S. Gokal, AWID Friday File “Bringing the Pope to Account for Widespread and Systematic Crimes against Humanity,” 9 Dec. 2011, (available in English, Spanish and French) and watch the openDemocracy 50.50 website for an upcoming piece about the ICC case.