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Should the Pope be tried for crimes against humanity?

A United Nations jurist wants to put Benedict XVI in the dock for condoning sex-abuse. The real question is, how many others should be there with him?
Michael Cook | 10 April 2010
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If you are interested in reading more, please check out MercatorNet's focus blog on the sexual abuse crisis -- Just B16

A prominent Australian-British human rights lawyer and United Nations jurist has suggested that the Pope be put on trial for crimes against humanity. I think that this is a brilliant idea.

Geoffrey Robertson outlined his scheme in The Guardian and a number of Australian newspapers. Although he feels strongly that the Vatican is fraudulently representing itself as an independent country, the Pope should be brought to account for systematic abuse of human rights during his pontificate. Since 2002, he points out, heads of state are no longer immune from prosecution before the International Criminal Court. For instance, a warrant has been issued for the arrest of the president of the Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In Pope Benedict’s case, Robertson argues that this includes sexual abuse of minors:

The ICC Statute definition of a crime against humanity includes rape and sexual slavery and other similarly inhumane acts causing harm to mental or physical health, committed against civilians on a widespread or systematic scale, if condoned by a government or a de facto authority. It has been held to cover the recruitment of children as soldiers or sex slaves. If acts of sexual abuse by priests are not isolated or sporadic, but part of a wide practice both known to and unpunished by their de facto authority then they fall within the temporal jurisdiction of the ICC – if that practice continued after July 2002, when the court was established.

But why stop at the Pope? Surely equity demands that others should stand in the dock along with Benedict if sex abuse happened on their watch and they failed to act energetically to stop it.

I suggest that the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, be the first ones to join him. Six years ago, the UN announced a zero-tolerance policy for sex-abusers among its peacekeeping troops. But it is still struggling to get member states to investigate and discipline soldiers. In fact, the UN's under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, Alain le Roy, told the Wall Street Journal in March, "It's my biggest headache and heartache, this whole issue." Sex abuse has been happening on a massive scale for years. There have been abundant allegations against peacekeepers in Haiti, Cambodia, West Africa, and Kosovo, amongst others.

Over the past three years, 75 peacekeepers have been disciplined for sexual misconduct. But most of the time the nations which contribute troops did not even respond to UN queries. Last year, only 14 of 82 requests for information were answered. "There is a natural instinct to basically cover up the whole thing," says Jordan's Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, who wrote a report in 2005 for the UN. "You don't want your name sullied or your reputation affected and so you try and bury it."

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Closer to home, perhaps Mr Roberson should consider indicting the executive director of USA Swimming, Chuck Wielgus. Yesterday, ABC television (in the USA) featured an investigation of sex abuse in organized swimming. It found that 36 coaches – out of 12,000 -- have been banned for life for sexual misconduct over the last 10 years by USA Swimming. The ABC claimed that “In some cases, the swimming coaches found to have been sexual predators were able to move from town to town, one step ahead of police and angry victims and their parents.”

Nor did Mr Wielgus offer much sympathy after being badgered by the ABC. "You feel I need to apologize to them?" he said. "I think it's unfair for you to ask me whether individually or me as the representative of an organization to apologize for something when all we are trying to do is everything we possibly can to create a safe and healthy environment for kids who are participating in our particular activity." At least Benedict has said “I’m sorry”.

How about, say, Texas Governor Rick Perry? Shouldn’t he be standing there, too, to defend himself against claims that he failed to prevent an epidemic of juvenile rape in his state’s prisons? Recent reports have shown that at least 12 percent of juveniles in American prisons are sexually abused by other youths or by staff. Typically, there has been a massive cover-up in Texas, the media found:

Staff covered for each other, grievance processes were sabotaged and evidence was frequently destroyed. Officials in Austin ignored what they heard, and in the very rare instances when staff were fired and their cases referred to local prosecutors, those prosecutors usually refused to act. Not one employee of the Texas Youth Commission during that six-year period was sent to prison for raping the children in his or her care.

Tu quoque, the argument that I’m not guilty because you did it too, must be the worst of all arguments. But anyone with the facts acknowledges that the Catholic Church’s problems are no worse than those of other organisations, and they are probably a good deal better. A reporter for yesterday’s issue of Newsweek had the bright idea of asking insurance companies whether the Catholic Church paid higher premiums because its employees were a greater risk. The answer was No  - and it never had. "We don't see vast difference in the incidence rate between one denomination and another," said an insurer. "It's pretty even across the denominations."

I wish that the record of the Catholic Church were vastly better, but that’s not the point. What gets missed when the failings of the Catholic Church are highlighted while other organisations go unscrutinised is the fact that all of us are stuck in a child-abuse crisis which stretches back for decades.

This came painfully to light this week in Germany when the principal of a prestigious boarding school catering for the left-wing elite, the Odenwald School, admitted that ghastly ritualistic sex abuse had gone on for years under her predecessor. Most of the abuse took place in the 1970s and 80s. “What I’ve heard completely goes beyond all imagining,” said Ms Kaufmann, headmistress at the school since 2007. “I just don’t know how this kind of behaviour carried on without teachers hearing cries of pain.” This, by the way, was not a religious school in any way, shape or form.

Typically, complaints were ignored by police and media. It first came to light in 1999 in the Frankfurter Rundschau, but the other newspapers ignored it.

The intriguing aspect of these sordid tales, which seem to be far more colourful than anything that happened in Catholic institutions, is their link to the sexual experimentation of the 60s and 70s. The Irish Times, which has the only major anglophone newspaper to cover the story, says that the teachers at “saw themselves as revolutionaries”, who were initiating them into the 1970s sexual revolution. “It was suggested to students that the respected principal understood them very well and that it was even a sign of recognition to show mutual affection,” wrote author Amelie Fried, a former pupil, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper. “We students were happy to be able to explore our sexuality in an angst-free climate. That some teachers used this freedom as a cover for their assaults is a scandal.”

“Exploring sexuality in an angst-free environment” is a philosophy which has not died. In fact, it is the air we breathe. When Freud died, the poet W.H. Auden wrote that "to us he is no more a person / now but a whole climate of opinion". And how! An entirely justifiable outrage at paedophilia is being directed only at adults abusing children. Children abusing children – in a non-coercive environment – is so common in Western societies that it is not even regarded as abuse. But what is widespread teenage sex except sex abuse? How can kids under 16 or even under 18 possibly give true informed consent when they are not capable of understanding that these moments of  “exploring sexuality” could scar the rest of their lives?

Paedophilia is rightfully despised and feared because of the inequality of power between the child and the abuser. But what if the child consents? Does that change the morality of the action? The Pope’s view is No, it doesn’t, because sexuality is only meant for marriage. But amongst those who believe that it is healthy to explore sexuality outside of marriage it is inevitable that some will push over the boundaries.

Consider two cases of this.

The first comes from 1977, when the French newspaper Le Monde published an open letter signed by 69 French intellectuals, including Jack Lang, a future minister for culture and minister for eduction, and Bernard Kouchner, a future minister for health and president of Medecines sans frontiers, along with luminaries like Jean-Paul Sartre, Giles Deleuze and Roland Barthes.  They were protesting the imprisonment of three men accused of having sex with 13 and 14-year-olds. What’s wrong with that, the intellectuals asked. If 13-year-olds have the right to get the Pill, surely they have the right to have sex with whomever they want?

Is this attitude dead and buried? Not by a long shot!

The second instance comes from this year, from the Huffington Post, the highly popular internet magazine which has published virulent attacks on the Catholic Church over the paedophilia crisis. As an example, one of this week’s headlines was Vatican Chooses to Prey on Rather Than Pray for Children. On January 1 this estimable publication ran an article, Embracing Teenage Sexuality: Let's Rethink the Age of Consent. The author, bioethicist Jacob M. Appel, argued

These draconian and puritanical [consent] laws are largely the product of a conservative political culture that has transformed the fight against child molestation into a full-blown war on teenage sexuality. We now live in a moral milieu so toxic and muddled that we lump together as "sex offenders" teenagers who send nude photos to each other with clergymen who rape toddlers. A first step toward reversing this madness -- and actually protecting the health and safety of teenagers -- would be to revise the age of consent downward…

How far downward? “Whether the age of consent should be 16 or 15, or even a year younger, is a complex question that our society needs to address.” But if the age of consent were 14 years old, isn’t that basically legalizing paedophilia? The toxic legacy of the 60s lives on.

Perhaps Geoffrey Robertson is right. Putting the Pope in the dock would spark a world-wide debate about paedophilia. Why is it so difficult to police? What is there about our views on sex which encourages it? Should we wind back our hypersexualised culture?

All the indicators are that the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is winding down now as the Pope and bishops get tougher and priests have clearer views on authentic Christian sexuality. But no one is preparing for the coming paedophilia crisis when the oversexed teens of 2010 are 34 and believe they still deserve to have some fun with 14-year-olds.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

This article is published by Michael Cook and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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