Pressure mounts to test papal immunity

PROTESTS are growing against Pope Benedict XVI’s planned trip to Britain, where some lawyers question whether the Vatican’s implicit statehood status should shield the Pope from prosecution over sex crimes by paedophile priests.

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition on Downing Street’s website against the Pope’s four-day visit to England and Scotland in September, which will cost British taxpayers an estimated £15 million (€16.89m).

Although Benedict has not been accused of any crime, senior British lawyers are examining whether the Pope should have immunity as a head of state and whether he could be prosecuted under the principle of universal jurisdiction for an alleged systematic cover-up of sexual abuses by priests.

Universal jurisdiction, a concept in international law, allows judges to issue warrants for nearly any visitor accused of grievous crimes, no matter where they live.

Lawyers are divided over the immunity issue. Some argue that the Vatican isn’t a true state, while others note the Vatican has national relations with about 170 countries, including Britain. The Vatican is also the only non-member to have permanent observer status at the UN. Then again, no other top religious leaders enjoy the same UN privileges or immunity, so why should the Pope?

David Crane, former chief prosecutor at the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal, said it would be difficult to implicate the Pope.

“It’s a fascinating kind of academic, theoretical discussion,” said Crane, who prosecuted Sierra Leone’s Charles Taylor when he was still a sitting head of state. “At this point, there’s no liability at all.”

But Geoffrey Robertson, who as a UN appeals judge delivered key decisions on the illegality of conscripting child soldiers and the invalidity of amnesties for war crimes, believes it could be time to challenge the immunity of the Pope – and Britain could be the place.

Jeffrey Lena, the California attorney who argued, and won, head of state immunity for Benedict in UN sex abuse cases, said the Pope could not successfully be prosecuted for crimes under international law.

“Those who would claim that ‘universal jurisdiction’ could be asserted over the Pope appear to completely misunderstand the sorts of violations, such as genocide, which are required to assert such jurisdiction.”

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