There are some books that should come with health warnings and  The Case of the Pope by Geoffrey Robertson QC is one of them. Reading it will make your blood pressure rise and fuel an uncontrollable  rage towards the Catholic Church in general and the current Pope in particular.

Of course, you may not feel the same way about this.

For example, if you think that ordaining women priests is as serious as sodomising a child you’ll have no problem with the Vatican’s policy towards victims of child abuse. Also you won’t feel so enraged as I did if you consider that molesting minors is a sin on a par with masturbation. You will be able to argue calmly that, after all, both breach the Catholic rule that stipulates the “non use of the sexual faculty” .

So, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a health warning needs to be directed at readers with hearts, minds and souls, and at those who place common sense above religious dogma.

This would alert those (surely the vast majority)  who believe that abusing a child is not only a sin, but also a criminal act and one which demands not only that the perpetrators be brought to justice but also that  the victims  be properly recompensed.

And if you are hoodwinked by Pope Benedict XVI’s recent public apology on behalf of priests under his charge  then Robertson’s book is essential reading.

Geoffrey Robertson QC

Geoffrey Robertson is a highly experienced  lawyer who has served as president of the UN War Crimes Court in Sierra Leone and defended high-profile blasphemy charges against Salman Rushdie and Gay News.  He is currently very much in the news as the man appointed to defend Wikileak’s Julian Assange.

His motive for writing this book is to highlight instances of  human rights abuses  which  the Catholic Church still refuses to fully acknowledge and whose response to public outrage  has been at best inadequate, at worst a deliberate flouting of the law. The Pope has led a PR exercise of damage limitation but no amount of spin can cover up the fact that the fundamental problems at the heart of this scandal have still not been properly addressed.

The sheer scale of the crimes is astonishing. The number of victims across the world is impossible to quantify but amounts to thousands. Robertson mostly  maintains a dispassionate lawyer’s tone throughout the book but even  he can’t help occasionally using emotive language  when he speaks of   “tens of thousands of children [who have been] bewitched, buggered and bewildered by Catholic priests“.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that the Catholic Church regards itself as above the law, or more accurately, that the priests are subject only to its own Canon Law.  Cases are heard in secret and rarely reported to the police even though these are clearly criminal offences.  A John Jay College study found that 76% of child abuse allegations made against priests had never been reported to law enforcement authorities. As ‘punishment’,  priests are rarely defrocked but more often routinely transferred to other parishes (where they constantly re-offend).

Astonishingly, in considering whether a person is guilty , Canon Law states a person must have ‘‘deliberately’’ violated the  law. The Canon Law Society of Britain and Ireland has commented: ‘‘Among the factors which may seriously diminish their imputability (guilt) in such cases is paedophilia”.  They argue that since paedophiles are “subject to urges and impulses which are in effect beyond their control…. the abuser  may not be liable, by reason of at least diminished immutability (guilt) to any canonical penalty or perhaps to only a mild penalty, to a formal warning or reproof or to a penal remedy.”

The Murphy Commission says, with admirable restraint,that it ‘‘finds it a matter of grave concern that, under Canon Law, a serial child abuser might receive more favourable treatment from the archdiocese or from Rome, by reason of the fact that he was diagnosed as a paedophile’’.

As Robertson rightly points out , Canon Law is not even a real law;. it is merely a system of controls against spiritual misconduct and has no role in dealing with serious crimes like these. Under this so-called law, the Catholic church treats the child abuse cases as sins rather than crimes. They speak of  abusers needing to ask for forgiveness,  ignoring the fact that ,in the real world, forgiveness is the prerogative of victims not the perpetrators of the crime.

Furthermore, Robertson  challenges the Pope’s right to head of state legal immunity arguing that the Holy See does not fulfil the legal requirements to be classified as a state. He calls the Holy See a Santa Claus state – “no matter how many people believe in it, it does not really exist”.

The book asks three key questions:

1. Should the Pope  be immune from legal action?

2. Do  the abuses by Priests against children constitute crimes against humanity?

3. Could the Pope be sued as the leader legally deemed to be responsible for those in his charge?

The answers to these three questions, if you hadn’t already guessed,  are respectively : NO, YES and YES.

The Case of the Pope is a timely and important book and a damning indictment of the Vatican’s handling of child abuse cases. Now that the cover up has been exposed, the next challenge is to strip the Catholic Church of state immunity and to force priests to be subject to criminal law.

As professional footballers are want to say, this is a ‘big ask’  but Geoffrey Robertson’s book is a courageous step in the right direction and as the Wikileaks slogan has it :“courage is contagious”.

Related articles: