(CN) - Pope Benedict's retirement plans may open him up to prosecution by the International Criminal Court for sheltering child abusers, an advocacy group said Monday.
Citing his frail health on Monday, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will step down as pope after less than eight years in office. He is the first pope to retire in the last 600 years.
Though a surprise to many, one group that the announcement failed to rattle is the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). It announced hours later: "whether he is in office or not makes no difference, but it may lower the bar of resistance enough for justice to be served."
"In this case, all roads really do lead to Rome," the group said in a statement. "Not only does Pope Benedict XVI bear responsibility in his official capacity for the church-wide policy of systematic and widespread concealment and enabling of the crimes, but he bears individual responsibility in a number of cases in which he ensured that perpetrators would be shielded and protected and left in place to assault more victims."
That group and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) are plaintiffs in a 2011 complaint
with the International Criminal Court that accuses Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict, of tolerating and concealing widespread rape and sexual abuse of children around the world.
The complaint included more than 20,000 pages of supplemental materials, including reports, policy papers and government and judicial inquiries.
In his previous capacity as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope allegedly centralized the investigation of all cases of clerical sexual abuse in Rome. The church allegedly hushed up accusations of abuse, and "shuffled" accused priests to remote locations where they found new victims.
CCR Senior Staff Attorney Pam Spees told Courthouse News that there is "no immunity for heads of state" in the International Criminal Court.
"But there could obviously be major political ramifications," Spees added.
She also said that Pope Benedict's "stepping down could remove some of these political hurdles," and that the Vatican ranks only second to the U.S. in the world terms of the number of its diplomatic relations."
In a letter to International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, staff attorneys for CCR described "sexual abuse" as a euphemism for the widespread rape and sexual violence by priests.
"Descriptions such as 'sexual abuse' tend to minimize the serious of the conduct at issue as though it is something other than torture, rape or serious sexual violence when committed by priests or others associated with the church," the letter stated.
Ocampo is currently reviewing the evidence.
Spees, the SNAP attorney, said Pope Benedict's retirement "removes an argument" against prosecution.
"The first responsibility for protecting and respecting the rights of citizens lies in the state and countries in which people live, and when those governments are constantly deferring that role to the church, who houses the perpetrators, then that's a real problem," she said.
"The idea is to get at the core of how and why these crimes keep happening regardless of any reforms that have ostensibly been entered into by bishops in U.S. or Ireland," Spees continued. "The policy allows these things to continue because they're more concerned with interests of the church than in taking measures to actually stop the abuse and violence. ...
"The church will often talk about its own canon law as a way of ensuring accountability but that's essentially the equivalent of a personnel policy in a large corporation, and it's not even as stringent as many personnel policies in corporations," she told Courthouse News. "And it's no substitute and can never replace accountability in the state and local law enforcement."
"Ultimately as our clients at SNAP point out, until you see bishops held accountable by Rome, in the same way they're held accountable when they speak out on things not in line doctrinally with what Rome says, then you'll see the policy shift," she added. "But for now a bishop who speaks out in favor of the ordination of women is swiftly removed, whereas those who harbor and enable child sex offenders ... nothing happens."