Lobby groups are pushing for the trial of Pope Benedict XVI at the International Criminal Court over widespread abuse of children by the clergy.
A coalition of human rights groups has filed a 20,000-page petition calling for the trial of senior Vatican officials for the “sustained and systematic” abuse of children and vulnerable adults by priests.
They say the church has actively covered up the crimes and resisted efforts to bring those responsible to trial.
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (Snap) argue the top leadership of the church bears ultimate responsibility for failure to punish the perpetrators, which they say exposed more victims to abuse.
Ms Pamela Spees, a senior attorney at the CCR, told the Daily Nation that they had turned to the ICC due to failure by the church and national authorities to take substantial action against the accused. (READ: Child abuse victims sue Pope for crimes against humanity)
“People mistakenly believe that the ICC only deals with crimes committed in war zones,” she said.
“But the Rome Statute is clear that rape, sexual violence and torture are crimes against humanity. They are crimes wherever they are committed.
“The fact is that what we are addressing here are grave crimes that have destroyed and continue to destroy lives.”
The organisations want the Pope and several top officials brought to The Hague for trial.
The other senior officials named in the filing are the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that oversees implementation of the church doctrine, Cardinal William Levada; Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state under Pope John Paul II; and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the incumbent secretary of state.
The petition by the abuse victims and human rights groups faces large odds of success, but could prove to be an acute embarrassment to the church.
The Vatican is not a signatory to the Rome Statute. But the treaty applies to all nationals of countries that are signatories.
Pope Benedict XVI is a German and his country was not only an early signatory to the treaty, but is one of the ICC’s largest donors.
Ms Spees says they had taken the action to shield victims that continue to suffer at the hands of priests. Some of the cases of abuse cited by the rights groups occurred in Africa.
The petitioners have included hundreds of cases that took place before the Rome Statute came into force in 2002 but these are ineligible for trial as they predate the endorsement of the treaty.
Ms Spees says they included them to show that the crimes in question were committed on a widespread scale. She says there were other more recent reports of abuse.
The office of the prosecutor could not be reached by the time of going to press. At the same time, the body that heads the Catholic Church in Kenya said it was yet to receive official communication on the move to indict the Pope.
The Kenya Episcopal Conference Secretary, Fr Vincent Wambugu, said it would be wrong to indict the Pope “from the common sense point of view” but instead go for individuals suspected of committing the crimes.
“I don’t think the Pope is anywhere near the crimes. Criminal responsibility should involve those people who the ICC thinks committed the crimes because they didn’t commit them on behalf of the church or the Pope,” he said.
The Catholic Church has always condemned any sexual abuse or criminal activity committed within its confines, he added.
Additional reporting by Aggrey Mutambo