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Prominent British atheists endorse efforts to seek pope's arrest

Atheist campaigners Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are exploring options to have the pope arrested when he visits the UK, for crimes against humanity related to the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI kneels during a service in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, April 2, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI has incurred the wrath of UK atheists

Richard Dawkins, the British scientist and Christopher Hitchens, the British-American author and journalist - both vocal atheists - support efforts to ascertain whether Pope Benedict XVI can be arrested and tried when he comes to Britain in September.

Hitchens is paying lawyers to look into the possibility of prosecuting the pope for crimes against humanity in the wake of the sex abuse scandal that has embroiled the Catholic Church worldwide. While Dawkins is not contributing financially, he says on his Web site that he "wholeheartedly supports it."

Hitchens has hired human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC and solicitor Mark Stephens from the London law firm Finers, Stephens Innocent, who both believe they can make a case against the pope.

"It is clearly a crime against humanity to be complicit in the cover-up of a crime against humanity, and that would be susceptible to being heard before the ICC [International Criminal Court] in The Hague" Stephens told Deutsche Welle.

"The alternative is, if and when the pope comes to this country [the UK] in the autumn, individuals who have been abused will be able to bring criminal proceedings in the criminal courts of the UK," he explained.

Robertson also believes that the Holy See can no longer ignore international law. The Catholic Church's cover-up of cases of abuse in Ireland, for example, he writes in the British newspaper The Guardian, "amounts to the criminal offence of aiding and abetting sex with minors."

Pope Benedict is to be in Britain from September 16-19, the first papal visit to the country since 1982.

Pope John Paul II in Canterbury, UK

The last papal visit to Britain was in 1982

Stephens argues that the pope is not a head of state, so he does not have to be granted immunity from prosecution, and could, therefore, be arrested on British soil.

"The Vatican is not a country, as you and I understand it, it's not a member of the UN, the US prevented it from becoming a member of the United Nations," he told Deutsche Welle.

Catholic crisis

The Catholic Church has been rocked by allegations of sexual abuse in the US, Ireland, Austria and, most recently, the pope's native Germany.

The pope issued an apology to abuse victims in Ireland, and the head of the German Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, has acknowledged that the Church failed to appropriately deal with abuse cases. But many still feel the Church has not done enough and needs to be held accountable outside the confines of Church doctrine.

A recent poll by the German newsmagazine Focus shows that the majority of Germans have no faith in the Roman Catholic Church and a quarter of the Catholics surveyed are considering leaving the Church in the wake of the recent revelations.

Catholic clean-up campaign

But some Church supporters point out that the Vatican has come a long way in implementing reform within the Church and that Pope Benedict, in particular, has been at the forefront of efforts to tackle sexual abuse among the clergy.

"In 2001, in the wake of cases that had come out in the US, John Paul II made the Vatican responsible for dealing with abuse cases," Anna Arco from The Catholic Herald, Britain's largest Catholic newspaper, told Deutsche Welle.

"Pope Benedict [then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger] started reading thousands of abuse cases and started acting and actually dealing with them in a way they had not been dealt with before," she explained.

Pope Benedict XVI with the Regensburg Domspatzen choir

The Regensburg Domspatzen choir saw cases of sexual abuse

John Paul II's decision to make the Vatican responsible for abuse cases rather than the individual dioceses, is seen as a major step towards more transparency in the Catholic Church.

Ratzinger was appointed the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in November 1981, which is responsible for tackling abuse by clerics and ensuring that the morals of the Church are upheld. Since 2001, the number of cases heard by the Vatican has increased dramatically.

"For anyone who recalled the slow and defensive response to the American situation eight years earlier, the change in Rome seemed almost Copernican," John Allen, journalist and prominent US commentator on the Catholic Church, wrote in the American National Catholic Reporter newspaper.

But Allen also points out that although Pope Benedict has to be credited for his reform efforts, few priests have been punished or asked to resign.

"Justice and punishment"

Hitchens emphasizes that whatever the reform efforts of the Church, "the institutionalized concealment of child rape is a crime under any law and demands not private ceremonies of repentance or church-funded pay-offs, but justice and punishment."

Stephens, himself a practicing Christian, agrees. "The church did not hand these errant priests over to the police or the authorities in any country and I think they should," he told Deutsche Welle.

"The fact that they are still covering up for these people is highly inappropriate, they should be handed over right now," he added.

But the Vatican has started to take the criticism on board. On Monday, it made it clear for the first time that bishops and other high-ranking clerics should report abuse to police if required by law.

Author: Nicole Goebel
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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