Bringing The Pope To Account For Widespread And Systematic Crimes Against Humanity - TrustLaw

Bringing The Pope To Account For Widespread And Systematic Crimes Against Humanity - TrustLaw

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The Word on Women - Bringing The Pope To Account For Widespread And Systematic Crimes Against Humanity

By AWID Friday Files | Yesterday at 1:16 PM | Comments ( 0 )

By Shareen Gokal, based on interviews with Pam Spees (CCR) and Megan Peterson (SNAP)

On September 13, 2011, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)[1] and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)[2] filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC)[3] to investigate and prosecute the Pope, the Vatican Secretary of State and two Cardinals for rape, other forms of sexual violence, and torture as crimes against humanity.

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.

Father Jeyapaul offered Megan a seat in his office, turned around to get the book and unzipped his pants instead. He then proceeded to rape her; he raped her repeatedly for almost a year, threatening to hurt her and her family if she did not cooperate. He used the religion that Megan had grown to love against her, saying that this was god’s will, that Megan needed to repent for her sins, and that he had the power to heal her.

Megan’s experience is emblematic of so many cases of clergy abuse from around the world – marked by violence, betrayal and long-lasting harm.

Demanding justice and accountability from top Church officials

With a perpetrator as powerful as the Church, victims and survivors[4] of rape and sexual abuse have stood little chance at ensuring accountability and preventing further harm. But that may be set to change.

The case, filed on September 13, 2011 by CCR and SNAP, presents 22,000 pages of supporting testimony, case studies, declarations, letters, statements, photographs, findings of multiple commissions,[5] and grand jury reports, and seeks to establish that the sexual violence perpetrated in the Catholic Church is systematic and widespread. It estimates from evidence available in countries, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy and the United States, that between 1981 and 2005 the number of victims was in the range of 100,000;[6] but taking into account cases from Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, it is likely many times higher worldwide.

The individual crime of rape, even outside the context of armed conflict, is admissible in the ICC if it is part of a widespread or systematic commission of offenses, which makes it prosecutable as a crime against humanity. Although the Court’s jurisdiction only goes back to 2002 when the Rome Statute entered into force, the submission to the ICC makes the argument that the numerous cases that occurred prior to 2002 are vital to establishing the “culture of rape and impunity” within the Church. Likewise, the CCR argues that cases that occur in the U.S. or in other countries that have not ratified the ICC statute are admissible as evidence because they further establish the widespread, systematic nature of sexual violence within the Church.

Ironically, the very 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 which over 100,000 victims of sexual abuse were identified, 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 head of this entity, Ratzinger is accused of ordering, encouraging, facilitating, or otherwise abetting those policies and practices related to the cover-up of credible sexual violence claims.[7] These practices include obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, “priest-shifting”, refusing to cooperate with civil authorities, victim blaming, rewarding cover-ups and punishing whistleblowers.

Also named in the complaint is Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who said 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.”[8]

The evidence includes correspondence over many years, by and to then-cardinal Ratzinger and Tarcisio Bertone, where bishops seeking to remove or defrock offending priests were repeatedly refused authorization to do so, despite compelling evidence and, in one case, a priest’s ritual of abuse being described as having a “satanic quality”.[9]

Cardinal Angelo Sodano is also named in the case, for his instrumental role in preventing accountability for one of the most “notorious” cases of sexual violence by a priest – that of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado. Maciel, founder of the religious order called Legion of Christ, had been denounced to Pope John Paul II for rape and sexual violence of members of the order as early as 1989. The Vatican took no action with regard to Maciel who went on to father several children with women he met under a false identity. One of those children has come forward to report that Maciel also raped him. Canonical proceedings started only after the scandal began to emerge more publicly in 2004, but were stopped by Sodano with the approval of Pope John Paul II.[10]

Widespread and systemic abuse and cover-ups

Among the findings included in the filing are those released by a Grand Jury in 2011 investigating the Philadelphia archdiocese, which documented sexual abuse of hundreds of children by at least 63 different priests.[11] Despite the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ adoption of a so-called “zero tolerance policy” on sexual abuse in 2002, 37 priests credibly accused of sexual violence were found to be actively serving in the Philadelphia archdiocese in 2011. One priest was transferred so many times that according to the Archdiocese’s own records “they were running out of places to send him where he would not already be known.”[12]

In the Boston Archdiocese, an 18-month investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office revealed that 250 priests and church workers stood accused of sexual assault of minors “so massive and prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable”. As with the other commissions, the Boston report concluded that “perhaps most tragic of all, much of the harm could have been prevented”.[13] But nothing was done despite top Church officials being aware of the offences.

An inter-diocesan inquiry in Germany found that “destruction of documents took place in considerable measure.” A former archbishop in the U.S. testified to “routinely shredding documents” containing allegations about sexual abuse, while another bishop was recorded advising Church lawyers to use protected diplomatic channels to communicate about sexual violence.

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. Afterward, Pican received a letter by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, with the approval of Pope John Paul II, telling him 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.”[14]

Among the individual cases submitted to the ICC is that of Rita Milla who was sexually molested by Father Santiago Tamayo at the St. Philomena Church in Carson, California when she was 16. The sexual aggression 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 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.

Tamayo has since died, and he was defrocked not for his crimes against Rita, but for getting married. 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, Tugade replied “I do remember her. … [w]e 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.”[15]

In Megan Peterson’s case, mentioned at the beginning of this article, a prosecutor filed charges against Father Jeyapaul and obtained an extradition order and Interpol ‘red notice.’ Jeyapaul is still working in churches in India, although the Vatican is fully aware of the rape allegation. Megan is now part of the evidence being presented at the ICC against William Levada, Ratzinger’s successor as Prefect for the CDF, for not taking action to ensure Jeyapaul’s extradition and cooperation with the investigation, in addition to his role in facilitating further violations.

Addressing impunity

According to Pam Spees, the lawyer at CCR who brought the case to the ICC, no national system has been able or willing to prosecute high-level Vatican officials for their direct or ‘command’ responsibility for these offenses. Even when there is a domestic level prosecution, it almost always only addresses the individual instance and not the larger, systemic underpinnings of these crimes.

The Church’s global presence, pseudo-sovereign status, use of diplomatic channels, and insistence on secrecy (enforced by threatening excommunication) have meant that it has continued to sidestep accountability in national jurisdictions around the world. In the meanwhile, the prosecutor at the ICC needs to 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” for such heinous crimes.

Take action:

Civil society organizations can identify and reach out to survivors and survivors’ organizations and lend support. Sometimes, in addition to the trauma that survivors experience, they also face great physical, psychological and emotional risk if they speak out. If you know of survivors who want to find other survivors, you can put them in touch with SNAP (via
For those who know of others with information or evidence they want to share in relation to the case, please contact CCR ( or communicate directly to the ICC ( The more cases that are presented at the ICC, the greater chance there is that it will hear a complaint against the Vatican.
Hold your governments accountable to their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill our human rights by ensuring that church officials at any level are subject to, and not held above, the same laws as anyone else. They should be investigating and prosecuting not only the direct offenders of rape and sexual violence but also the higher officials who leave them in place, or even transfer them to other locations, knowing they have offended and will offend again.
Hold your international and regional human rights mechanisms accountable in the same way so that they fulfill their promise and their mandates to ensure accountability. The Church wants to be treated as a state when it works to the Vatican’s advantage, then hides behind the veil of religious authority when it does not. It has to accept the consequences and repercussions for the actions committed by all its members.
[1] The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

[2] Founded in 1988 in Chicago, USA, SNAP is the largest, oldest and most active support group for women and men wounded by religious authority figures; SNAP has chapters all over the world.

[3] Center for Constitutional Rights, “Victim’s Communication Pursuant to Article 15 of the Rome Statute Requesting Investigation and Prosecution of High-level Vatican Officials for Rape and Other Forms of Sexual violence as Crimes against Humanity and Torture as a Crime against Humanity,” ICC File No. OTP-CR-159/11, submitted on behalf of SNAP and individual victims and survivors, 13 Sept. 2011. Available online at

[4] While the term “survivor” is appropriate to acknowledge, affirm and empower those who have lived through violence, it also important to acknowledge that through the evidence gathered it is clear that many people have not survived their ordeals. The case presented to the ICC documents tragic cases of suicide, attempted suicide, and long-lasting harm. (CCR, “Victim’s Communication...,” p. 4)

[5] The Hughes, Winter, Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne Commissions and Westchester, Suffolk and New Hampshire reports.

[6] CCR, “Victim’s Communication...,” p. 6

[7] CCR, “Victim’s Communication...,” p. 56

[8] CCR, “Victim’s Communication...,” p. 37

[9] CCR, “Victim’s Communication...,” p. 46

[10] CCR, “Victim’s Communication...,” p. 47

[11] The record of incidents documented in the testimony is staggering: The cases include an 11-year-old girl who was raped, became pregnant and was taken for an abortion by the priest. Another girl was molested as she lay immobilized in a hospital bed. One victim was raped at 12 years of age and tried to commit suicide and remains institutionalized in a mental hospital as an adult. In another case, a boy was beaten until he was unconscious by his father for complaining that his brother was being abused by a priest.

[12] Complaint, p. 25

[13] CCR, “Victim’s Communication...,” p. 21

[14] Complaint, pp. 37-38

[15] CCR, “Victim’s Communication...,” p. 42-43.
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