An international group for victims of sexual abuse by priests say they are suing Pope Benedict XVI through the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said it had filed a complaint calling on the ICC to “take action and prosecute the Pope” for “direct and superior responsibility for the crimes against humanity of rape and other sexual violence committed around the world”.
In a statement, SNAP said members from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States had travelled to The Hague to urge prosecutors to investigate the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
The US-based victims network submitted more than 20,000 pages of supporting materials including “reports, policy papers, and evidence of the crimes by Catholic clergy committed against children and vulnerable adults”, it said.
SNAP members were accompanied by lawyers from the non-profit US Centre for Constitutional Rights.
“Crimes against tens of thousands of victims, most of them children, are being covered up by officials at the highest level of the Vatican. In this case, all roads really do lead to Rome,” the centre’s lawyer Pam Spees said in the statement.
Megan Peterson, a 21-year-old SNAP member who spoke publicly of her abuse for the first time last week, called on the ICC to “take this case seriously and do the right thing”.
“I don’t want any more kids to go through what I went through,” she said.
SNAP also requested three high-ranking Vatican officials be investigated: Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, his predecessor Angelo Sodano and US Cardinal William Levada.
Levada is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office designated to investigate sex abuse cases forwarded to it by bishops.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi refused to comment.
“The 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,” Spees said.
“They should be brought to trial like any other officials guilty of crimes against humanity,” she added.
But Herman van der Wilt, professor of international law at Amsterdam University, told AFP he did not think the complaint “stands much of a chance before the ICC”.
“Firstly, a prerequisite for crimes against humanity is that it has to be perpetrated by a State, or ‘state-like’ organisation,” he said.
“And secondly because the ICC would not be able to investigate any crimes committed before July 1, 2002, when its mandate commenced according to its founding statute,” he added.
SNAP head Barbara Blaine called on victims “across the globe” to “join us”.
The association said it was “embarking on a 12-city tour throughout Europe to demand local diocese turn over relevant documents and encourage other victims of sexual abuse by clergy to come forward and provide additional evidence to add to the complaint”.
In addition to The Hague, SNAP members will visit Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, London, Dublin, Warsaw and Madrid before returning to Rome to “bring the case to the Vatican’s door”.
The Roman Catholic Church is struggling to deal with rising anger and a string of lawsuits following thousands of child abuse claims in Europe and the United States.
Pope Benedict has expressed shame and sorrow over the clerical sex scandal and has called on bishops around the world to come up with common guidelines against paedophiles by May 2012.