Taking the Pope to court

In a landmark effort to bring Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict XVI, to account for crimes against humanity - the widespread and systematic sexual violence perpetrated by the Catholic Church, a case has been filed with the International Criminal Court. Shareen Gokal reports
Shareen Gokal
1 February 2012

When Megan Peterson was 14, she was convinced her calling in life was to be a nun. Then, in 2004, she met Father Jeyapaul, a visiting priest from India, at her home parish in the Diocese of Crookston in Minnesota. Having seen him first at a youth retreat, she only hesitated a little when he asked about the book she was reading and offered to lend her one of his own.

According to Megan, Father Jeyapaul offered her a seat in his office, turned around to get the book and unzipped his pants instead. And that he then proceeded to rape her - and raped her repeatedly for almost a year, threatening to hurt her and her family if she did not cooperate. Megan’s experience is emblematic of so many cases of clergy abuse from around the world-marked by violence, betrayal, and long-lasting harm.

With a perpetrator as powerful as the Catholic Church, victims and survivors of rape and sexual abuse have stood little chance of ensuring accountability and preventing further harm. As Megan notes, “People’s faith is represented directly by the clergy and by the Vatican, and so they do not speak out against their abusers for fear that to do so would be speaking out against their own faith.”

But for Megan her experience was just the beginning of a remarkable journey. She not only survived the violence perpetrated against her, she chose to fight back. Along with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and the US-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on 13 September 2011 her case became part of a complaint filed with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and prosecute the Pope Benedict XVI , the Vatican Secretary of State and two Cardinals for rape, other forms of sexual violence, and torture as crimes against humanity.

According to Pam Spees, the CCR lawyer who filed the complaint with the ICC, no national system has been able or willing to prosecute high-level Vatican officials for their direct or “command” responsibility for these offences. The Catholic Church’s global presence, pseudo-sovereign status, use of diplomatic channels, and insistence on secrecy enforced by threatening excommunication, has allowed it to sidestep accountability in national jurisdictions around the world. As Pam Spees states “The Catholic Church wants to be treated as a state when it works to its advantage, then hides behind the veil of religious authority when it doesn’t. It has to accept the consequences and repercussions which is something it just isn’t very good at.”

The case seeks to establish that the sexual violence perpetrated in the Catholic Church is systematic and widespread. If this can be proved, then even individual cases of rape can be prosecuted as a crime against humanity.

Based on some estimates it is thought that there around 100,000 cases of sexual abuse by clergy just between 1981 and 2005; if cases from Africa, Latin America and elsewhere are added, the worldwide total is likely to be many times higher.

The case presents 22,000 pages of supporting testimony, case studies, declarations, letters, statements, photographs, and grand jury reports. It also includes the findings of multiple commissions, such as the Cloyne Commission, the Hughes Inquiry.

Ironically, the centralized and hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church, used so effectively in cover-ups, also provides the strongest evidence of violations. The case establishes that high-level Vatican officials either knew or should have known about the brutality being perpetuated by its members. During the period in question, current pope Joseph Ratzinger headed the “Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith” (CDF) the entity to which all sexual violations within the Church must be reported.

As the CDF head, Ratzinger is accused of ordering, encouraging, facilitating, or otherwise abetting the cover-up of credible claims of sexual violence. The cover-up included obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, “priest-shifting”, refusing to cooperate with civil authorities, victim blaming, rewarding cover-ups and punishing whistleblowers.

The complaint also names Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who is on record as saying that bishops should not be obliged to report offending priests to civil authorities: “(Civil society) must… respect the ‘professional secrecy’ of priests… If a priest cannot confide in his bishop for fear of being denounced, then it would mean that there is no more liberty of conscience.”

The evidence includes correspondence over many years in which it is alleged that Ratzinger and Bertone repeatedly refused to authorize bishops to remove or defrock offending priests This was despite compelling evidence which includes one priest whose ritual of abuse was described by one victim as having a “satanic quality.”

Cardinal Angelo Sodano is also named in the case for preventing accountability for Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ religious order. Maciel had been denounced to Pope John Paul II for rape and sexual violence of members of the order as early as 1989. Yet the Vatican took no action until the scandal began to emerge more publicly in 2004. Even then, proceedings were stopped by Sodano with the approval of Pope John Paul II.

The case argues that self-regulation through “zero tolerance” policies on sexual abuse has failed miserably. A US Grand Jury investigating the Philadelphia Archdiocese found that, despite adopting such a policy in 2002, 37 priests credibly accused of sexual violence were found to be actively serving in the Archdiocese in 2011.

An 18 month investigation of the Boston Archdiocese by the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office revealed accusations of sexual assault of minors "so massive and prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable". The Boston report concluded that perhaps most tragic of all much of the harm could have been prevented". But nothing was done despite top church officials being aware of the offences.

In 2001 French Bishop Pierre Pican was sentenced to three months imprisonment for failing to report the rapes and sexual assaults of ten boys by a priest in his diocese. Afterwards, Pican received a letter writen by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, with the approval of Pope John Paul 11, telling him that he had "acted wisely", and that he was "delighted to have a fellow member...who...would prefer to go to prison rather than denounce his priest-son."

Along with Megan’s case, the individual cases submitted to the ICC include that of Rita Milla who says she was sexually molested by Father Santiago Tamayo at the St. Philomena Church in Carson, California when she was 16. The sexual aggression is reported to have escalated over the next five years, leading to her repeated rape by seven priests. Rita became pregnant and, despite the priest’s urging, refused an abortion. Tamayo arranged for her to be sent to his brother’s clinic in the Philippines where she was neglected and starved until she fell into a coma and delivered her child in that state.

Rita’s mother finally tracked her down, brought her home to recover and reported the abuse to the Archdiocese, but after a year she was told nothing could be done. In 1984, she filed a suit against the Los Angeles Archdiocese but the seven priests accused had all disappeared, and when the case finally reached the Court of Appeals, the statute of limitations had expired.

In March 1991, Tamayo returned to California, confessed and apologized to Rita, producing letters showing that the Los Angeles Archdiocese had been paying him to stay in the Philippines to avoid scandal or legal action.

A court-ordered paternity test confirmed that another priest in the diocese, Valentine Tugade, was the father of Rita’s child. When questioned by a journalist, the ICC case documents show that Tugade replied “I do remember her. … we had intercourse with her, a lot of us.” But, he added, “she wanted it, and so I don’t have to apologize to her. I have repented a long time ago.”

In Megan Peterson’s case, a prosecutor filed charges against Father Jeyapaul and obtained an extradition order and Interpol “red notice”, April 13, 2010. Yet Jeyapaul is still working in churches in India, although the Vatican is fully aware of the rape allegation.

Megan continues to raise awareness of her experience and profile the work of SNAP which now has chapters in 18 different countries and gives a powerful platform for survivors of clergy abuse to advocate for prevention and justice.

“It means the world to me, to know that my story is being heard and taken seriously, when so many people, including those close to me, often doubted me and my abilities. So many have suffered and share similar stories to mine. I am doing this for myself, and for all those who have been mistreated and discarded by the Catholic Church,” she says.

Pam Spees adds, “This case is a labor of love for us at CCR. I’ve worked around sexual violence issues most of my adult life. I often think I reach a point where I’ve heard the worst of the worst. But the clergy rape cases still manage to shock me. Working on this case in partnership with survivors who have managed to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their lives …has been inspiring and empowering. This case carries with it so much truth, hope, love and compassion.”

Meanwhile, the prosecutor at the ICC must decide whether the case submitted meets its jurisdiction and scope and whether the ICC has the political will to take on “God’s representative on earth”. What is the time scale here? Nothing definite.


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