No Comment — March 31, 2010, 2:15 pm

Pontifex Maximus Claims Head-of-State Immunity

I spent the last two weeks in Europe, where the Catholic Church’s child-abuse scandals in Ireland and Germany were continuously grabbing headlines. Returning home, I see comparable stories being played out in the media here. Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken critic of the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI, writes in a scathing piece at Slate that the pope must be held accountable through legal process:

This grisly little man is not above or outside the law. He is the titular head of a small state. We know more and more of the names of the children who were victims and of the pederasts who were his pets. This is a crime under any law (as well as a sin), and crime demands not sickly private ceremonies of “repentance,” or faux compensation by means of church-financed payoffs, but justice and punishment. The secular authorities have been feeble for too long but now some lawyers and prosecutors are starting to bestir themselves. I know some serious men of law who are discussing what to do if Benedict tries to make his proposed visit to Britain in the fall. It’s enough. There has to be a reckoning, and it should start now.

Pushback comes from figures like New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who used a recent homily to compare the criticism now raining down on the Bavarian pope to the “the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob and scourging at the pillar” suffered by Jesus Christ. (Can a cardinal’s hat be far away for Archbishop Dolan?)

But other efforts to establish the Holy See’s civil liability for child abuse by priests are already underway. I’m fascinated by this story about how the Holy See plans to battle claims in a legal proceeding in Kentucky. A lawsuit has been brought by three individuals who claim they were abused by a priest. They are trying to bring the Vatican directly into the suit, claiming it is liable by virtue of failure of supervision (under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior). The Associated Press, stating it has obtained legal documents prepared by the Catholic Church, unfolds the Vatican’s strategy:

Vatican lawyers plan to argue that the pope has immunity as head of state, that American bishops who oversaw abusive priests weren’t employees of the Vatican, and that a 1962 document is not the “smoking gun” that provides proof of a cover-up.

The Holy See is trying to fend off the first U.S. case to reach the stage of determining whether victims actually have a claim against the Vatican itself for negligence for allegedly failing to alert police or the public about Roman Catholic priests who molested children.

Since the risorgimento, the Catholic Church has maneuvered to secure the position of its Rome-based hierarchy as a nation-state, with the pontiff as head of state. The position is at least somewhat problematic, although the Vatican does have the essentials of a population, territory, and recognition by some states. The current litigation points to the advantages of this posture. An American court would naturally turn to the Department of State for a view as to whether the pontiff is entitled to this sort of protection in the face of a civil lawsuit.

The second claim, that the American bishops were not accountable to the Vatican under respondeat superior, strikes me as far more doubtful as a matter of canon and civil law. But I can imagine that a U.S. court will be unenthusiastic about wading into such a thicket.

The legal strategy seems to me to be a fairly obvious one. The litigation will be testing some intriguing issues. But I can’t imagine that any of these arguments will make for good PR for the church, which is under heavy attack around the world for putting its own reputation ahead of accountability for those responsible for criminal wrongdoing.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans
Post
Kid Chocolate’s Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears.”
Illustration by the author
Article
Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If you short-circuit the bottom, you threaten the entire cycle,” Joye told me. “Without a healthy ocean, we’ll all be dead.”
Illustration by John Ritter

Length in days of the sentence Russian blogger Alexei Navalny served for leading an opposition rally last year:

15

Israeli researchers developed software that evaluates the depression of bloggers.

A teenager in Singapore was convicted of obscenity for posts critical of Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding father, that included an image of Lee having sex with Margaret Thatcher.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today