NEW YORK — The International Criminal Court has rejected a longshot request by clergy sex abuse victims to investigate former Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican cardinals for possible crimes against humanity.
The tribunal, based in The Hague, told attorneys for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests that “there is not a basis at this time to proceed with further analysis.”
“The matters described in your communication do not appear to fall within the jurisdiction of the court,” a court official wrote in a May 31 letter to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the nonprofit legal group that represents the victims. The legal organization released the letter Thursday.
Jeffrey Lena, the U.S. attorney for the Vatican, had called the 2011 request to the court a “ludicrous publicity stunt.”
“The common thread running through all these cases is the mistaken idea that ‘everything is controlled by Rome,'” Lena said Thursday.
Pam Spees, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said her group was confident it could collect enough evidence as new abuse victims come forward to press the tribunal to reconsider.
The odds against the court opening an investigation have been enormous. The prosecutor has received more than 9,700 independent proposals for inquiries since 2002, when the court was created as the world’s only permanent war crimes tribunal, and has never opened a formal investigation based solely on such a request.
Attorneys for the victims had argued the global church maintained a “long-standing and pervasive system of sexual violence” despite promises to swiftly oust predators.
The Survivors Network argued that rape, sexual violence and torture are considered crimes against humanity as described in the international treaty that spells out the court’s mandate. The complaint also accuses Benedict and Vatican officials of creating policies that perpetuated the damage, constituting an attack against a civilian population.
But the court wrote in its letter to victims’ attorneys that it can only investigate crimes committed after the tribunal was formed and can only examine “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
“It appears that some of these preconditions are not satisfied with respect to the conduct described,” the court wrote. “Some of the allegations described in your communication do not appear to fall within the court’s temporal jurisdiction, and other allegations do not appear to fall within the court’s subject-matter jurisdiction.”
A study commissioned by the U.S. bishops from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York found abuse claims had peaked in the 1970s, then began declining sharply in 1985, as the bishops and society in general gained awareness of the problem.
Vatican officials and church leaders elsewhere have apologized repeatedly, clarified or toughened church policies on ousting abusers and, in the U.S. alone, paid out nearly $3 billion in settlements to victims and removed hundreds of guilty priests.
However, Barbara Blaine, a leader of the Survivors Network, argued that Catholic officials “are still knowingly enabling predators to harm and endanger children across the world, while concealing these heinous crimes even more effectively.”