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Review: The Case of the Pope by Geoffrey Robertson QC

This book is the first Penguin Special in over 20 years. Published periodically between 1937 and 1989, Penguin Specials covered subjects of public concern and The Case of the Pope is in that tradition. The issue is the part played by the present Pope in the abuse cover-up and the case against Benedict is made by the most eminent human rights lawyer in Britain, Geoffrey Robertson QC.

For Irish readers there is not much new in this little book (it's less than 200 pages) but the legal manner in which Robertson constructs the case makes it compelling reading. For British readers less familiar with the abuse scandal (the book was published to coincide with the Pope's visit) it will be a shocking eye-opener.

Robertson details the role played by the then Cardinal Ratzinger in the two decades he ran the CDF, the all-powerful church body that dealt with abuse cases, when he insisted that all cases be handled under the "pontifical secrecy" provisions of Canon Law, which meant the civil authorities were not informed.

Robertson believes that this protection of guilty priests, allowing them to be dealt with informally by bishops (eg by being moved to other parishes), and the failure to involve the police, makes the Pope a suitable candidate for investigation by the prosecutor at the international court.

The widespread and systematic nature of child sex abuse brings the Holy See within the scope of international criminal law and amounts, in principle, to a crime against humanity, Robertson believes. The Pope had a legal duty to ensure that perpetrators were punished and that duty was breached by imposing Canon Law secrecy and moving priests around.

"Astoundingly, this has not been recognised as a human rights horror by the UN's ineffectual committee charged with the oversight of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, or by states like the US and UK that issue reports tracking serious human rights violations, or even by organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch," Robertson says.

The reference to Amnesty is interesting since in Ireland it is now headed by Colm O'Gorman, himself a victim of clerical abuse.

Robertson's overview of the international situation is devastating. He shows that the incidence of clerical abuse is much higher than had previously been understood -- probably up to 100,000 children have been molested by priests since 1981.

This can be extrapolated from the understated John Jay College Study (10,600 victims in the US); judicial commissions in Ireland (reporting abuse as "endemic" in Catholic boys' schools); similar figures in Canada; in Melbourne, Australia, 300 priests have been identified as abusers since 1996, with only one defrocked; in Malta 50 out of its 85 priests are suspected abusers and similar data is emerging in Austria, Germany and Belgium.

The details about the movement of paedophile priests to Africa and Latin America will shock even Irish readers and may in time produce evidence of abuse on an even wider scale, Robertson believes.

He demolishes the legal basis for the Vatican's claim to a form of statehood which puts its clergy above the civil law and he is scathing about the UN's apparent acquiescence in this. He is also highly critical of the Pope's response to abuse in Ireland and in particular the recent attempts by the Pope to address the situation.

All told, this book is essential reading for anyone dealing with clerical abuse, both in Ireland and abroad.

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