VATICAN CITY–An international group for victims of sexual abuse by priests said Tuesday it had asked the International Criminal Court to prosecute Pope Benedict XVI for crimes against humanity.
The Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said it had filed the complaint with the ICC with help from lawyers from the non-profit US Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).
They called on the court to “take action and prosecute the Pope and three other high-ranking Vatican officials for their direct and superior responsibility for the crimes against humanity of rape and other sexual violence committed around the world.”
“Crimes against tens of thousands of victims, most of them children, are being covered up by officials at the highest level of the Vatican,” CCR lawyer Pam Spees said in a statement.
“In this case, all roads really do lead to Rome,” she added.
As well as the pope, SNAP asked that three other top Vatican officials be investigated: Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, his predecessor Angelo Sodano and US Cardinal William Levada.
Levada is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office designated to investigate sex abuse cases forwarded to it by bishops.
“The Vatican officials charged in this case are responsible for rape and other sexual violence and for the physical and psychological torture of victims around the world both through command responsibility and through direct coverup of crimes,” Spees said.
“They should be brought to trial like any other officials guilty of crimes against humanity,” she added.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi refused to comment.
Some international law experts suggested the case might not go very far.
Normally, the ICC prosecutor only investigates complaints if asked to do so by the United Nations Security Council; by a state that has ratified the Rome Statute; or on his own initiative.
But the CCR said in its statement that “the jurisdiction of the ICC names rape, sexual violence assault, and torture as crimes against humanity.
“It also provides for individual criminal liability for those with command or superior responsibility over those who directly commit such crimes.”
On this basis, members from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States had travelled to The Hague to urge prosecutors to investigate the head of the Roman Catholic Church, it said.
The US-based victims network said it had submitted more than 20,000 pages of supporting material.
Megan Peterson, a 21-year-old SNAP member who spoke publicly of her abuse for the first time last week, was among those backing the initiative.
Describing her ordeal, she recalled: “When at age 15 I called the diocese to report the rapes they hung up on me.”
She called on the ICC to “take this case seriously and do the right thing.
“I don’t want any more kids to go through what I went through,” she said.
But Herman van der Wilt, professor of international law at Amsterdam University, told AFP he did not think the complaint stood much chance before the ICC.
“Firstly, a prerequisite for crimes against humanity is that it has to be perpetrated by a State, or ‘state-like’ organization,” he said.
“And secondly because the ICC would not be able to investigate any crimes committed before July 1, 2002, when its mandate commenced according to its founding statute,” he added.
The Roman Catholic Church is struggling to deal with rising anger and a string of lawsuits following thousands of child abuse claims in Europe and the United States.
The latest major crisis came in July, when the Irish Prime Minister launched a ferocious attack on the Roman Catholic Church’s “absolutely disgraceful” failure to deal with years of sexual abuse of children by priests.
Pope Benedict has expressed shame and sorrow over the clerical sex scandal and has called on bishops around the world to come up with common guidelines against paedophiles by May 2012.
But the issue shows no sign of going away.
On Tuesday an Australian senator, Nick Xenophon, named a Catholic priest who allegedly raped a teenage boy in assaults dating back about 50 years, after the Church refused his demand that they withdraw him from his post.