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On Pope Benedict XVI: Fact From Fiction

Posted: 19/02/2013 09:36

After the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI the rumour mill was fired up without abandon. Already circulating around the blogosphere is the assumption that this pardon - only the third of its kind (unless you count Gregory XII in 1415 who agreed to quit at the request of the council of Constance) - is due to an impending arrest warrant with the Pope's name on it.

One Stuart Wilde, a metaphysics writers, has alleged that a meeting will take place between the Pope and the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, where the subject of full immunity from the prosecution for crimes against humanity will be raised.

Immediately this was countered by asking a simple question: why would the Pope resign, renouncing not only his Papacy, but also his immunity as a head of Vatican City, a sovereign state (as it has been since the the 1929 Lateran Pacts between Italy and the Holy See)? Even if the Vatican's sovereignty was called in to question, the Holy See has a special status in international law which gives it rights that are in some cases analogous to sovereign rights.

One does not have to like these facts (indeed as a non-Catholic I benefit nothing from repeating them), but such they are.

It has been noted elsewhere that a country could file crimes against humanity against the Holy See, under international criminal law, in a country where the principles of universal jurisdiction are held such as Germany or Belgium. As it was noticed in 2010, however, the international criminal court (ICC) has no retrospective jurisdiction prior to its creation in 2002, and public or private prosecutions brought against Pope Benedict would first have to convince the Crown Prosecution Service that he was somehow responsible.

This brings us on to the next issue that has again been raised now that Pope Benedict has decided to call it a day: that he was personally to fault for covering up persecution of children within the Catholic Church.

As Jonathan Freedland wrote for the Guardian recently:

Whatever warm words he uttered as pope, it is [his] record of action - and inaction - that matters more... despite his age and the reverence of the office he soon vacates, he should answer for his actions. Not only in the next life, but here and now.

Freedland goes on to list the accusations that are levelled specifically against Pope Benedict, including withholding knowledge, personally covering up instances of paedophilia and using ineffective, in-house forms of rehabilitation for criminals.

The latter is a common retort about Canon Law (that it is law above the rule of law and a cover for 'Papal secrecy') when in fact it only deals with issues inside the church, not excluding the police or civil law. The other, very serious accusations, ask questions of Pope Benedict's record when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as well as when he was the Archbishop of Munich.

Anybody not familiar with the story of Father Hüllermann is advised to read this report by Tristana Moore for Time Magazine - detailing aspects of paedophilia in the church, mismanagement at a local level, and the unsubstantiated accusation that one Father Gerhard Gruber, the then vicar-general of the Munich Archdiocese, took responsibility for employing a criminal, thereby being a scapegoat for the current Pope.

Many realise and condemn the failings here, but to hold Ratzinger personally at fault here ignores two things: 1) somebody else more local to the issue took responsibility for the failure, and to suggest a conspiracy is to ponder on something that can not be substantiated upon; 2) the unlikelihood of such extreme micro-management by the current Pope - a point which is hard to prove and only made by that hammerhead of good journalism Johann Hari for the Daily Mail in 2010.

Some, like Geoffrey Robertson QC, suggest that the current Pope personally benefitted from cover-ups so he himself could ensure against the ruinous reputation of the church - running contrary to the work he did initiating strict new norms for dealing with sexual abuse cases, in his words "ridding the filth".

Take, for example, the prosecution of Mexican paedophile Priest Marcial Maciel. Amidst criticism from the likes of Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the current Pope sought his prosecution with immediate effect. This was no easy win. Maciel, it is noted, was a ferocious fundraiser, having secured assets worth around €25billion - but Pope Benedict, here, put principle before finances.

The uncomfortable issue for many Catholics is that for the current Pope to get the attention he deserves for dealing with abuse, he may in turn tarnish the reputation of former Pope John Paul II. It is alleged that John Paul ignored canon law charges against Maciel and when Ratzinger advanced the case for a full investigation, his opponents blocked the inquiry.

There is significant contradiction in accusing the current Pope of ensuring his good name at the expense of Father Gruber, when neglecting to mention how modest he is about his record compared to his predecessors. Surely, we can oppose the current Pope's politics and theology whilst nothing that there are important claims about him that can not, and are not, yet substantiated.

 
 
 

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