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Pope accused of crimes against humanity
The Centre for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based non-profit legal group, requested an ICC inquiry on behalf of the Survivors Network, arguing that the global church has maintained a "long-standing and pervasive system of sexual violence" despite promises to swiftly oust predators.
The Vatican said it had no immediate comment on the complaint.
The complaint names Pope Benedict XVI, partly in his former role as leader of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which in 2001 explicitly gained responsibility for overseeing abuse cases; Cardinal William Levada, who now leads that office; Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state under Pope John Paul II; and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who now holds that post.
Lawyers for the victims say rape, sexual violence and torture are considered a crime against humanity as described in the international treaty that spells out the court's mandate. The complaint also accuses Vatican officials of creating policies that perpetuated the damage, constituting an attack against a civilian population.
Barbara Blaine, president of the US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by priests, said going to the court was a last resort.
"We have tried everything we could think of to get them to stop and they won't," she said. "If the Pope wanted to, he could take dramatic action at any time that would help protect children today and in the future, and he refuses to take the action."
The odds against the court opening an investigation are enormous. The prosecutor has received nearly 9,000 independent proposals for inquiries since 2002, when the court was created as the world's only permanent war crimes tribunal, and has never opened a formal investigation based solely on such a request.
Instead, prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has investigated crimes such as genocide, murder, rape and conscripting child soldiers in conflicts from Darfur to this year's violence in Libya. Such cases have been referred to the court by the countries where the atrocities were perpetrated or by the UN Security Council.
Also, the Holy See is not a member state of the court, meaning prosecutors have no automatic jurisdiction there, although the complaint covers alleged abuse in countries around the world, many of which do recognise the court's jurisdiction.
The prosecutor's office said in a statement the evidence would be studied. "We first have to analyse whether the alleged crimes fall under the Court's jurisdiction," it said.
The Survivors Network and victims are pursuing the case as the abuse scandal, once dismissed as an American problem by the Vatican, intensifies around the world. Thousands of people have come forward in Ireland, Germany and elsewhere with reports of abusive priests, bishops who covered up for them and Vatican officials who moved so slowly to respond that molesters often stayed on the job for decades.
Vatican officials and church leaders elsewhere have apologised repeatedly, clarified or toughened church policies on ousting abusers and, in the US alone, paid out nearly $3 billion in settlements to victims and removed hundreds of priests.
The Vatican is fighting on multiple legal fronts in the US against lawsuits alleging the Holy See is liable for abusive priests.
Those prosecutions also could form an impediment to the ICC taking the case. The tribunal is a court of last resort, meaning it will only take cases where legal authorities elsewhere are unwilling or unable to prosecute.
Also, the court does not investigate crimes that occurred before its 2002 creation. A study commissioned by the US bishops from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York found abuse claims had peaked in the 1970s, then began declining sharply in 1985, as the bishops and society general gained awareness of the problem.
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