Vatican Accused of Being 'Rogue State' over Abuse Inaction

The Irish Times
September 8, 2010

INTERVIEW: A veteran rights lawyer argues in a new book that the Holy See has hidden behind immunity, writes MARK HENNESSY , London Editor

THE VATICAN should be treated as "a rogue state" by the world until it deals properly with child sexual abuse by priests, argues Geoffrey Robertson, a United Nations judge and veteran British human rights lawyer.

In the 1970s, Robertson defended Irish people accused of terrorism in the UK, saved the lives of Jamaican prisoners on death row, and represented Catholics detained without trial in Singapore.

Now, in a new book, he argues the Vatican and Pope Benedict are hiding behind a weak claim to statehood to dodge responsibility for failing to act against thousands of priests worldwide who have abused children.

The experience in Ireland weighed heavily during his writing of The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse the first special on a major topic of interest published by Penguin in 21 years.

"I came to this fresh. But when I read the Ferns report, the Murphy report, I couldn't believe it. Words kept cropping up: widespread, endemic, systematic abuse. The words clung to me," he told The Irish Times .

In Ireland, numbers of victims run into thousands; in the United States it stands at a "conservative" 10,000-plus, while 50 of Malta's 850 Catholic priests have been suspended on suspicion of abuse.

"Everyone says wait for Africa and Latin America, because a lot of paedophile priests have been 'trafficked' to Africa and Latin America where they are not being closely watched and where complaints don't get made," Robertson said.

"The head of the African bishops' conference said last month, 'They sent us wolves in sheep's clothing.' The scale of the thing just staggered me."

The Catholic Church must change, or risk losing its right under international law to be treated as a state even if its claim to statehood was not fully accepted by the United Nations.

If it does not change, Robertson believes, the church will wither, or risk losing the vestiges of statehood that it does possess and face charges before the International Criminal Court for human rights abuses of children.

"There is a doctrine used in international criminal law of command responsibility, first introduced to deal with Japanese generals in who didn't do anything to punish those responsible ," he declared.

Mandatory reporting of abuses must become the norm, canon law must be abandoned in abuse cases, and confessional secrets must be abandoned where guilty priests tell others of their sins.

"It is no longer for it [the church] to say that 'we keep the confidences of the confessional', because if you have one priest confessing to a fellow priest that he is a paedophile and is abusing children and will continue to abuse, these are children of the Catholic Church.

"There must be a duty on the confessor to persuade the confessee to go to the police or himself take the issue to the bishop, because he knows that the priest will abuse. If he doesn't report it he has become an accomplice," he went on.

Describing the Holy See as "a palace with gardens" rather than a state, Robertson argues that it has hidden behind the immunity offered by such a status.

"There has been a 30-year conspiracy," he said.

"Many are 'trafficked' priests who were known to be abusers and then sent to a parish or a country where they are not known. The Vatican knew and the Vatican approved. And it refused to defrock them."

Statehood has allowed the Vatican to "throw dust in the eyes" of governments.

"Political leaders rush to the Vatican to kiss the pope's ring to get blessed in the hope that it will play well with their electors," Robertson said. "Even Tony Blair couldn't wait. And the Vatican is using this power over politicians."

Robertson said the church in Australia conducted "a whispering campaign" against the atheistic outgoing Labour prime minister, Julia Gillard.

"It does have power, and politicians are afraid of it. Any Irish politician who had spoken out prior to 2009 against the church would have lost a lot of support," he said.

Pope Benedict has repeatedly told paedophile priests they can find forgiveness. "One perhaps might remember that there is the famous quote about mill-stones and drowning in the depths of the sea," Robertson said.

"The damage have done is to make people think that they clearly can't believe in heaven. Maybe Stephen Hawking is right and there is no God. That is the damage that has been done by allowing them to get away with it: the loss of faith."

Catholics in England and Scotland should tell the pope next week during his visit that "it is not acceptable" that the church "turns a blind eye to a crime against humanity".

"You risk emptying the church if you go on like this," Robertson said.

"It is a message that will fall on deaf ears with this pope, but the next one could be standing by his side. It would be a wonderful thing if Benedict did take the sins of the fathers onboard and voluntarily resign[ed]. It has been done before, but not for 600 years."

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