Canon Law Has Allowed Abuse Priests to Escape Punishment, Says Lawyer

By Afua Hirsch
The Guardian
September 7, 2010

The claims come amid growing calls for Pope Benedict to be arrested for crimes against humanity when he arrives in the UK.
Photo by Tony Gentile/Reuters

The system of law operated by the Vatican has allowed serious sex offenders to escape punishment and must be abandoned, says a prominent lawyer.

According to Geoffrey Robertson QC, whose book The Case of the Pope is published tomorrow: "Canon law has been allowed to trump criminal law in countries throughout the world. This is a very serious matter‚ the pope through his pretensions to statehood refuses to acknowledge that child sex abuse is a serious crime as well as a sin.

"The Catholic church must abandon canon law as a punishment for priests who commit crimes."

The church's form of law, Robertson argues, "has no public hearings, no DNA test facilities, no enforcement mechanism, and the most severe punishments – excommunication or an order to return to the laity (without entry on a sex offenders' register) – bears no comparison with the sentences of imprisonment or community service that can be expected under criminal law."

He describes the penalties as "derisory", with those found guilty of molesting children required to undergo "chiefly spiritual exercises".

Robertson also argues that the pope cannot legally be considered a head of state and, therefore, covered by diplomatic immunity. The lawyer is highly critical of the British government, which he accuses of failing to understand the international law surrounding sovereignty.

The UK is one of several countries that recognises the sovereignty of the Vatican and the Holy See based on the 1929 Lateran treaty signed by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

"This is nonsense," Robertson told the Guardian. "The Lateran treaty says nothing of the sort, and even if it did the UK would not be bound, since it was not a party.

"The Lateran treaty cannot serve as a credible or creditable basis for the Holy See to claim statehood. The grant of 108 acres – the size of a large golf course – was not pursuant to any international treaty, but rather the unilateral declaration of one sovereign state."

Neither city nor See was ever accepted as a member of the League of Nations, and their offer to join the United Nations in 1944 was rejected "with some derision" by the then US secretary of state, Cordell Hull, Roberston said. "Yet this is the rock on which the Holy See still stands for its sovereignty and statehood."

The law, set out in the 1933 Montevideo Convention on defines states as entities with a permanent population and a defined territory.

Robertson said: "The most dimwitted tourist in St Peter's Square can recognise that before him stands not a state, but a palace with a basilica surrounded by museums and gardens."

The claims come amid growing calls from campaigners for the pope to be arrested for crimes against humanity when he arrives on Monday to begin the first papal visit to Britain in nearly three decades.

Today it emerged that the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, will be among the senior politicians and religious leaders presented to Benedict XVI by the Queen at Holyroodhouse Palace in Edinburgh. There are no plans for David Cameron to attend.

The Vatican has been accepted as a party to international treaties, including the statue for the international criminal court. Robertson argues that even if the Vatican is considered a state, there is still the possibility of an arrest for crimes against humanity under the jurisdiction of the court.


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