The Case of the Pope by Geoffrey Robertson Qc: Review

By Catherine Pepinster
The Telegraph
September 17, 2010

Catherine Pepinster takes issue with Geoffrey Robertson's The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse

In the Seventies, Penguin published “Specials” with titles like The Homeless and the Empty Houses and Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear. They were powerful polemics against the most precious mainstays of society – property ownership and marriage – which exposed their underbellies and revealed their victims: the homeless and battered wives. So Geoffrey Robertson QC’s The Case of the Pope, which is the first Penguin Special since the series was abandoned in 1989, is typical of the genre in its exposure of the dark side of the Roman Catholic Church’s leadership. It’s a passionate blast in defence of the most vulnerable victims possible: children.

Robertson’s primary premise is that the Pope as head of the Vatican is responsible for a secret system that has protected paedophile priests from proper criminal investigation and prosecution; that its archaic process of Canon Law fails to deal with them adequately and that Pope Benedict is personally responsible for these failures and obstructions and should be indicted for them; that he should not be allowed to hide behind being a head of state and should not be given immunity from prosecution on these dubious grounds. He is, in other words, an enemy of human rights.

This attack has been purposefully timed by Robertson and Penguin to embarrass Pope Benedict during his state visit to Britain. Indeed, one has the sense that this is a call to arms from Protest the Pope, the organisation planning major events against the visit.

While Erin Pizzey’s Scream Quietly exposed a scandal of domestic abuse and violence that was until its publication mostly unspoken, Robertson’s investigation covers now well-trodden ground. Since 2002, when the Boston Globe revealed the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, there has been a steady stream of exposures of similarly shocking behaviour in Britain, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Austria, Germany, Malta and now Belgium.

On each occasion the stories have revealed sickening details of children molested and raped by priests. The similarities were striking: the majority of those abused were boys, often in early adolescence. And in each country the abusing priest, when discovered, was dealt with in a similar way – moved away from the initial victim(s), usually enabling him to abuse again, while his bishop would keep his offences secret. The damage done to victims is incalculable. It has horrified Catholics, shaking their faith in the Church to the core, and has ravaged the Church’s moral authority.

As the editor of a Catholic weekly, I have had to read account after account of the abuse scandals over the years, but for anyone unused to this material Robertson’s detailing of it in one volume will make for stomach-churning reading. Robertson is an adept QC and this is a devastating case for the prosecution, with one man’s culpability in its sights: Robertson’s contention is that Pope Benedict XVI, particularly when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005, protected the abusers through the Church’s Canon Law and ignored the victims. More than this, the use of Canon Law was Ratzinger’s way of maintaining power and thwarting any attempt to take priests through the criminal courts. Robertson then goes on to examine the power wielded by the Church through its status as a state and the means it gives Benedict XVI to escape prosecution for “crimes against humanity”.

If Benedict were to be brought before an international tribunal we’d hear not only the case for the prosecution but also the defence. This is a one-sided account that makes no apology for being partial.

Robertson’s theories regarding the Church and its status are flawed. Robertson maintains that the Holy See bases its claim to being a state on the 1929 Lateran Treaty and that is the only reason that nations such as the UK recognise it in international law. In fact, relations with the Holy See, the Vatican’s seat of governance, are based on the establishment of relations in 1479, followed by a hiatus of 450 years after the Reformation, until diplomatic relations were restored in 1914, 15 years before the Lateran Pact.

Then there is the role of Benedict himself. While Robertson insists that he was involved in investigating cases of paedophilia throughout his time at the CDF, the CDF did not have any cases brought to it before 1985. It was only in 2001 that paedophilia became the exclusive remit of that office. The cases trickled in, until 2003-2004, when, according to Monsignor Charles Scicluna, a senior CDF official, the Congregation had to cope with a sudden avalanche.

Even the Pope’s staunchest critics have been impressed with the way he dealt with Fr Marcial Maciel, a crony of John Paul II and founder of the wealthy order the Legionaries of Christ, who has been exposed since his death of appalling crimes of abuse, including the rape of children he secretly fathered. As Pope, Benedict moved swiftly to remove Fr Maciel from office, to spend his days in penance and prayer. An investigation into the Legionaries was then ordered.

Perhaps the most revealing remark made on Benedict’s role came from his associate Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, who indicated earlier this year that when Cardinal Ratzinger tried to act against some of the most shocking paedophiles, he was blocked by other forces in the Vatican. The trouble with critics such as Robertson is that they see the Church’s leadership as one monolithic entity. Unfortunately it appears to be as prone to power politics as any other institution.

Robertson’s is also unwilling to give credit for change. In recent years the Church, especially in the US and Europe, has moved away from reliance on Canon Law and towards working more with the police. And any counsel for the defence would give far more credit to Benedict’s meetings with victims – another one is likely during the British papal visit.

Above all, what Robertson just doesn’t get is the Church’s “soft” attitude to the perpetrators of abuse, evidenced by its forgiveness for wrongdoing, its request for penance and its failure to banish those who have attacked children. The approach can be explained by the intimate, fatherly role of bishops to their priests and by the Christian emphasis on forgiveness. Robertson appears to want vengeance. But the Church approach would have been a lot less likely to offend Robertson if it had shown similar fatherly concern for the abuse victims. Nor have its bishops done themselves any favours by constantly fighting accusations on the advice of insurers and yes, Robertson’s fellow lawyers.

While The Case of the Pope has targeted an individual, the real story of the abuse scandal is that of an institution that went awry and needs to substantially reform the handling of these scandals. So dented is its reputation that it would do well to set up an international commission of lay people to investigate what went wrong and form ground rules for dealing with paedophilia. Italy, mired in corruption, needed mani pulite. The Church needs these clean hands too.

* Catherine Pepinster is editor of The Tablet, a Catholic weeky

The Case of the Pope – Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse

by Geoffrey Robertson QC

240PP, Penguin, ?6.99


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