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Do you think the Pope should face legal action over the Catholic child abuse cover-ups?Of course, the issue isn't one of whether Richard Dawkins will be marching Pope Benedict XVI to a police station this September, but rather whether there is a legal opening for holding the Pope responsible for the child abuse cover-ups. This was outlined by Geoffery Robertson QC in the Guardian on Good Friday, no less. Robertson suggests that, as international law "now counts the widespread or systematic sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity", there is a possibility that Benedict, as the man who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, ordered that cases of child abuse be concealed from secular authorities on pain of excommunication, could be tried on that basis. The daft image of Dawkins himself arresting the Pope stems from the idea that, if an arrest warrant could be obtained for Benedict in this country, an arrest could be carried out when he arrives on these shores in September.
a) Yes. This cover-up appears to go to the very top and its perpetrators must face justice.
b) Yes. While it's unlikely the Pope will end up in the dock, suggestion of a legal challenge during his UK visit will draw attention to the extent of the cover-up.
c) No. This looks like atheist posturing. We need to join with Catholics in calling on the Vatican to come clean on this issue, and talk of arresting the Pope will just alienate them.
d) No. This is about many individual, horrific cases of abuse spread over decades. It is a distraction to try and attribute responsibility to one man.
A further intruguing angle to all this is that, in order for a warrant to be obtained, it would first have to be demonstrated that the Pope is not entitled to diplomatic immunity as the head of state of the Holy See. So, reading between the lines, the idea of a legal challenge as put forward by Robertson, Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and solicitor Mark Stephens is less about the unrealistic prospect of physically putting the Pope in the dock, and more about drawing attention to the twin issues of the abuse cover-ups and the Vatican's anomalous statehood by raising the unlikely possibility of prosecution.
There have of course been lots of arguments made against this idea. In an excellent post, the Heresy Corner blogger demonstrates the implausibility of the whole idea, while pointing out that talk of arresting the Pope distracts from the real issues at stake. "There were bishops and Vatican officials whose actions were more reprehensible," he writes. "Yet who are escaping the intense scrutiny reserved for the man at the top." Meanwhile, Catholic barrister Neil Addison, who writes a blog on the law and religious freedom, dismisses suggestions that the Vatican's statehood can be challenged:
"The legal status of the Vatican as an independent state may be regarded by some as ridiculous and it can be described as anomalous but it is nevertheless a legal fact and it is frankly fatuous for a lawyer to suggest otherwise."Robertson's suggestions, Addison says, have their basis less in his legal expertise, and more in his personal prejudices against the Catholic Church:
"Normally I wouldn't comment on an article or Blog written by another person because, at the end of the day, we are all entitled to our own opinion but when a Lawyer writes an article or Blog and invokes the law then people are entitled to assume that they are quoting the law accurately not just engaging in personal prejudice and polemic masquerading as legal fact."Another angle comes from Sam Leith in the Evening Standard, who suggests that the involvement of the so-called New Atheists is a distraction, which will put Catholics off joining in calls for the pepertrators of abuse and the cover-ups from being held to account:
"Many of us take the view that Pope Benedict is a very bad hat.His organisation, on his watch, systematically covered up child-rape on an institutional scale, and we'd like to see him answer to a rather more robust court than his own conscience.So, we've tried to feed these differing viewpoints into our poll answers. Vote at the top right of this page.
But Dawkins and Hitchens leading the charge against him muddies the waters.They had a philosophical beef with the Pope before they had a legal one, and they will appear to many people to be acting in their roles as professional atheists with books to promote.
It's not metaphysics that are the primary problem here but child molestation. What we really need is believing Catholics, and lots of them, to be making the case for the Pope's arrest."
Update: Writing on Comment is Free, Richard Dawkins has set out the reasons why he believes the Pope should face legal action.