Pope Benedict XVI could end up at the Hague after human rights lawyers and victims of clergy sexual abuse filed a complaint Tuesday calling for the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate and prosecute the catholic cleric along with three other top Vatican officials for crimes against humanity and covering up and condoning the rape and sexual assault of children by priests.
Two American advocacy groups, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests,(SNAP) have filed an 80 page complaint as efforts to hold the Pope and the Vatican responsible for sexual abuse committed by priests, shifting part of the culpability on the Catholic institution.
The filing cites five cases in which priests have been accused of abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the United States; the priests in these cases are from Belgium, India and the United States.
In its filing with the ICC on Tuesday, rights group CCR alleged that sex abuse crimes were "widespread and systematic."
"Crimes against tens of thousands of victims, most of them children, are being covered up by officials at the highest level of the Vatican. In this case, all roads really do lead to Rome," CCR lawyer Pam Spees said.
"The high-level officials of the Catholic church who failed to prevent and punish these criminal actions," the complaint says, "have, to date, enjoyed absolute impunity."
Florence Olara, a spokeswoman at the court announced the prosecutor's office would examine the papers, "as we do with all such communications" and explained the prosecutor's office will now have "to analyse whether the alleged crimes fall under the court's jurisdiction."
The new complain is set to bring back the abuse issue at the forefront at the media and the ICC's decision will be scrutinised by victim's groups and activists alike, particularly as new details showed the court had already received complaints about the Vatican and child abuse by Roman Catholic priests.
Legal experts have however warned that the complaint against the Pope and the Vatican is unlikely to fit the court's jurisdiction as it mandate is to prosecute the persons responsible for the most 'serious crimes' which are often considered to be crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Rev. Federico Lombardi, the spokesman for the Vatican, said he had no comment but Vatican officials have in the past denied the Vatican's responsibility by insisting decisions linked to priests accused of abuse are left in the hands of bishops.
Lawyers and abuse victims for the U.S. and Europe have insisted on the need to take up actions against the Vatican during a news conference they held Tuesday, explaining the investigations and prosecutions of sexual abuse by Catholic priests that have taken place various countries would not prevent institutions insiders from continuing the crimes and cover-ups.
Two of the victims denounced a system of protection of the priests as they denounced how the priests who sexually abused them just moved to different countries and are still in ministry working with children, despite church superiors knowing about their abuse. "National jurisdictions can't really get their arms around this," said Pamela Spees, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who participating in the filing. "Prosecuting individual instances of child molestation or sexual assault has not gotten at the larger systemic problem here. Accountability is the goal, and the I.C.C. makes the most sense, given that it's a global problem."
Along with Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state; Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the previous secretary of state and the current dean of the College of Cardinals; and Cardinal William J. Levada, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have been included in the complaint.
While the court now has to determine whether the case fits the court's jurisdiction, experts have warned the prospect of Pope Benedict XVI being tries at The Hague is unlikely.
The prosecutor's office has received more than 9,000 requests for investigations, but almost half of them were found to be "manifestly outside" its jurisdiction.
Also the Rome Statute that set up the court also stipulates that the ICC should be used as a court of last resort only if national proceedings are unable to take place.
On the other hand, the ICC has recently been criticised by rights groups for mainly indicting crimes including genocide, murder, conscription of child soldiers and rape mostly in Africa but turning a blind eye on accusations of the alleged systematic use of torture by American soldiers in places like Guantanamo Bay.