By Alexandra Halsey-Storch
Impunity Watch Desk Reporter, Europe

THE HAGUE, Netherlands – On Tuesday September 13, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (“SNAP”), a Chicago-based non-profit organization, and the Center for Constitutional Rights (“CCR”), a New York City-based non-profit organization, filed an 80-page complaint accompanied by 20,000 pages of evidence to the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) urging the investigation and prosecution of the Pope and three other top Vatican officials who “tolerated and enabled the systemic and widespread” concealment of child sex abuse.

How close is too close? (Photo Curtesy of Human Restore)
How close is too close? (Photo Courtesy of Human Restore).

The ICC is a criminal court, independent from the functions of the United Nations. The Court is governed by the “Rome Statute,” which are a set of international laws, ratified by 117 countries including Italy, Germany and Belgium.  The United States is not a signatory.

Florence Olara, a spokesperson from the ICC prosecutor’s office has said that those reviewing the complaint and supporting evidence will first consider whether the crimes fall under the Court’s jurisdiction. There has been some speculation from international law experts suggesting that the ICC will dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction, meaning that the court does not have the statutory authority to hear the case.

Article 5 of the Rome Statute reads in relevant part that, “the jurisdiction of the court shall be limited to the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole. The court has jurisdiction in accordance with this statute with respect to…crimes against humanity.” Furthermore, “crimes against humanity” are defined as, in relevant part, torture or rape (among others) or “other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of that attack.”

While the Vatican and the numerous Archdiocese Centers around the world have deemed sexual abuse to generally mean “inappropriate touching,” in an attempt to down-play the horrifying allegations, perhaps a Grand Jury in Philadelphia clarified the term best when it said, “sexual abuse does not just mean ‘inappropriate touching.’ We mean rape. Boys who were raped orally, boys who were raped anally, girls who were raped vaginally. But even those victims whose physical abuse did not include actual rape—those who were subjected to fondling, to masturbation, to pornography—suffered psychological abuse that scarred their lives and sapped the faith in which they had been raise.” For those crimes, Vatican officials “should be brought to trial like any other officials guilty of crimes against humanity.”

In their complaint, SNAP and CCR have argued that the sexual abuse against tens of thousands of children in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Mexico, and the United States among others, constitutes a “serious crime” that “concerns the international community as a whole.”  Pam Spees, an attorney with CCR explained that, “national jurisdictions can’t really get their arms around this. Prosecuting individual instances of child molestation or sexual abuse has not gotten at the larger systemic problem here. Accountability is the goal, and the ICC makes the most sense given that it is a global problem.”

Furthermore, the complaint further alleges that, “the [named] 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 cover up of crimes,” explained Spees.

Specifically, the complaint and accompanying evidence identifies “intentional cover-ups and affirmative steps taken that serve to perpetuate the violence and exacerbate the harm.” For example, various policies and practices were (and still are) in place that allowed high-level officials to move offending priests from “parish to parish with no warning to parishioners and others with whom [the priests] came in contact.

Perhaps most disturbing, is that the same or similar practices and policies have been found in virtually every country where cases of sexual violence have been brought to light.

On the other hand, international law expert Mark Ellis from the International Bar Association has argued in response to SNAP’s complaint that a “widespread or systemic attack” is really a “policy, in which the government or authorities are planning the attack.  When you look at the concept of why and how the ICC was created,” he says, “I just don’t think this fits.”

In the past, Pope Benedict, speaking on behalf of the Vatican, has expressed “shame and sorry” over the tragic accusations of sexual abuse made by victims about priests; but, he has also maintained that priests are appointed by bishops and not the “Vatican hierarchy,” in an attempt to divert responsibility.

In response to the filing of this particular complaint, Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi did not release a comment to the press.

Regardless of whether or not the ICC dismisses the complaint or authorizes further investigation, the New York Times has called this current complaint the “most substantive effort yet to hold the Pope and Vatican accountable in an international court for sexual abuse by priests.” Even if the ICC does dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction, as Mark Ellis pointed out, “the filing does something that’s important. It raises awareness.”

For more information, please visit:

Center for Constitutional Rights – ICC Vatican Prosecution – 13 Sept. 2011

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests – Child Abuse Victims accuse Pope of Crimes Against Humanity – 13 Sept. 2011

Belfast Telegraph – ‘War crime’ court asked to prop Vatican– 14 Sept. 2011

The New York Times – Abuse Victims Ask Court to Prosecute the Vatican – 13 Sept. 2011

Author: Impunity Watch Archive