I Smell a Ratzinger

Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and popular Darwinist, is working with Christopher Hitchens, talented author and frequent Vanity Fair contributor, to bring criminal charges against the Pope.

Just read that sentence one more time. It could be my favorite sentence ever, after "Jon Stewart loved your audition tape," and, "here are the bacon donuts!".

Two dudes I have hardcore academic crushes on are teaming up to bring novel international LEGAL claims against the most powerful institution in the world? Awesome! Never mind the fact that neither is a lawyer, or that they don't have jurisdiction, or that the Pope almost certainly has sovereign immunity - it's time to start a realistic conversation about how to hold Catholic clergymen legally (and secularly) accountable for the Church's massive child abuse conspiracy.

The most recent allegations began when the Associated Press released a 1985 letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) refusing to defrock Father Stephen Kiesle, a CONVICTED child abuser. Kiesle had been found guilty by a California court in 1978 for tying up children and molesting them.  Kiesel requested to be defrocked, but the Pope refused for "the good of the universal church." (Maybe Kiesle had something else in mind when he asked to be "defrocked.")  The Father began volunteering as a youth minister, and subsequently plead guilty to child molestation and was sentenced to six years in prison.  Today, Kiesle is a registered sex offender.

This is the just most recent in a long line of accusations that the Catholic Church spent decades (maybe centuries?) covering up sex abuse scandals and silencing victims. But now, Dawkins and Hitchens are leading a new kind of charge: suing the Pope. They've hired two English attorneys - Solicitor Mark Stephens and Barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC - and are angrily pounding their keyboards and inundating the internet with incendiary, effusive threats.  But what are the chances of their legal jargon actually accomplishing anything other than stoking their own anti-Catholic sentiment (and stroking their own egos)?

Their first problem is whether they're going to bring criminal or civil charges. While they keep spouting statements about the Church's crimes, they can't bring criminal charges themselves.  So, either they lobby individual prosecutors to bring charges against individual priests (which is already being done on some level) or they get an international criminal court to prosecute the higher-ups for...what? Criminal Negligence? Human Rights Abuses? Maybe. It's too soon to speculate about the success of a prosecution, but the worldwide proliferation of Catholics doesn't necessarily bode well for an anti-Catholic Nuremberg.

In the meantime, news coverage of the Dawkins/Hitchins crusade indicates they're also launching a private civil suit against Pope Benedict.  If that's true, they've got to find a person who has an actual interest in the case. Neither Dawkins or Hitchens has a personal cause of action against the Pope, so they need to find a molestation victim (preferably someone abused by a Priest, like Father Kiesle, whom Church authorities expressly permitted to be around children despite abuse allegations) to actually bring the suit.  If they want to sue the Pope in England, this victim must have been abused in or be a resident of England to establish jurisdiction.  Then they have to get past the Vatican's claim that as head of state, the Pope has sovereign immunity from prosecution. (The counter-argument is that the Vatican is not a United Nations member, only an observer nation, and therefore cannot claim international sovereign immunity. No predictions yet on how successful that argument will be, but this issue alone could have far-reaching implications. Consider other observer nations like, oh, I don't know, PALESTINE?).

These challenges mean that Dawkins and Hitchens, despite their rhetorical flourishes, are the LEAST likely people to mount a successful challenge against one of the world's oldest, richest, and most powerful institutions.  Wouldn't organizing an international class action brought by actual victims make a bigger, better impact?  Not to be flippant with a subject as tender and terrible as child abuse, but asbestos and cigarette manufacturers quickly settled cases when they saw the number of potential claimants. Sometimes the threat of legal action is more powerful than legal action.

And, maybe that's what Dawkins and Hitchens are trying to do. Maybe they understand their own limits, but think that someone needs to be raising these issues, starting this conversation, and making these threats.  And if that's the case, we couldn't ask for two men with a more vivid mastery of prose. When asked if his goal was to get the Pope to resign, Dawkin's gave the following chilling response:
No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice - the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution - while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.
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April 17, 2010 at 1:58 AM delete

I thought you said Ratzenberger and thought, "You know, I bet that the smell of Cliff Clavin is incredibly incredibly distinctive."

No other comment. Except to say, you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can't pick who follows your Google Buzz.

...wait...what? You can? Crap.

...uh... Dawkins and Hitchens, while intelligent in other places, have picked an easy (and, for cultural currency's sake, "in-the-news"-ish) target to trash with correct but overblown rhetoric on a matter that they don't really care about except to say "I took down THE Church", wholly ignoring the good works of individual Catholics and Catholic charity work in their desire to smear and destroy an admittedly flawed but not wholly despicable institution because they believe that, to be true atheists, they have to hate non-atheists. And I'm SURE neither of them is promoting a book.

And I'm saying this as a non-practicing Protestant, for Christ's sake. The capitalist underpinnings of incredibly loud, out-of-nowhere philanthropy are nothing if not obvious. Placing bets on whether Rosie O'Donnell or Oprah is the next to enter the fray.

I hope they get the publicity they deserve. They're certainly working for it.


April 18, 2010 at 11:37 AM delete

The greatness and the failing of the Catholic Church lie in its size. As the world's largest single religious body (according to the CIA World Factbook) it provides spiritual and humanitarian aid to over a billions persons worldwide. As a huge hierarchical organization of overwhelmingly male leaders, it has also committed great sins: sexual abuse by priests, indulgences, the Spanish Inquisition, and the sack of Constantinople, to name a few.

While the authors of "God Is Not Great," and "The God Delusion" may get their kicks from trying to have the Pope arrested, they are not unique in "raising these issues, starting this conversation, and making these threats." People have been hating on the Catholic Church, albeit often with good reason, for two thousand years. Nonetheless, the Church still grows.

Over a billion Catholics worldwide will ensure the Church atones for its recent sins and adapts to prevent sexual abuse from happening far more than two arrogant British atheists.

Mike Strobel
April 18, 2010 at 10:59 PM delete

This was far too long to read, but I approve of anything bashing the Catholic Church.

April 19, 2010 at 11:00 AM delete

I don't think the observer nation counter argument is going to hold water. The Papal State has been a sovereign government for longer period of time than any American government, on either continent. Stating that membership in the U.N. is a prerequisite for exercising sovereign immunity seems very arbitrary.

Even outside of the sovereign immunity issue, the case seems really weak against the pope. Criminally, I just do not see the fact pattern to pursue a criminal charge. The pope here is guilty of not prosecuting, expelling, or "defrocking" members who molested children. I'm not sure the pope has any affirmative duty to expel members who commit crimes. Does it look bad? Yep. Is what the pope did illegal? That's a pretty iffy proposition.

Civilly, a court is going to have to reach some contorted version of respondeat superior to reach the pope. RS is great for the strict liability, but I don't think a court can reach it. Generally, we don't hold people liable for omissions (absent an affirmative statutory duty). I don't think anyone is accusing the pope of actively encouraging molestation. Finally, this discussion presumes a U.S. jurisdiction. Tort law is decisively less favorable almost every else.

Ultimately, it's horrifying that the Catholic Church allowed members to abuse children and then remain priests. At the same time, the people wanting to sue obviously don't like the Catholic Church for completely distinct reasons. Whether those reasons are justifiable or not, by their own admission they don't have a horse in the race here.


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