I’m interested in the response by the Catholic Union to the recent suggestion that the Pope should be arrested and held legally liable for his alleged failure to tackle the sexual abuse of children. The full pdf file of the press release outlining their response is here.
To say, as they do, that
There is not a single criminal offence under British law which could conceivably be alleged against Pope Benedict
is I think putting their case unnecessarily high. I agree there’s nothing he can realistically be arrested for, but to consider the documentary evidence of what he has done in the past in legal terms, as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have asked lawyers to do, and to suggest that international human rights law may be or should be relevant is neither inconceivable nor “risible”, as the Catholic Union also suggests.
I don’t think they help their moral case by implicitly arguing on technical grounds that the Pope, or Cardinal Ratzinger as he was, cannot be legally responsible for the Church’s actions:
The power exercised by Roman Catholic bishops in law relates to their position as employers, school governors, trustees etc under English law. None of these offices are held by the Pope. His influence is exercised through the purely voluntary obedience of Catholics. Without direct legal power no duty in law can be justly implied. Even the appointment of bishops is not always recognised by some countries.
Which amounts to defending him on the basis that “he never gave any orders”. This strikes me as the worst sort of casuistry. It is quite clear that both the Pope and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith make authoritative decisions, determine the culture and practice of the church and set its policies; and of course in the Kiesle case it appears Cardinal Ratzinger personally made the important decision not to defrock.
But they go further:
… responsible commentators ought to weigh carefully the possible consequences of this campaign of vilification against Pope Benedict XVI. An attempt was made on the life of Pope John Paul II by an assassin in 1982. Many public figures face dangers of this sort in today’s world. If a protester is incited to perform a publicity stunt such as a citizen’s arrest of the Pope, then police officers will be put in a difficult position. Faced with having to make a swift decision as to whether a situation is a publicity stunt, a lawful protest or an attempt on the life or limb of the Pope, the consequences of any such decision might be serious and involve innocent bystanders.
which seems completely over the top as a way of trying to deter and silence criticism.
Finally, the Catholic Union brings religious hatred into it,
Incitement to religious hatred is a criminal offence and has public order ramifications. Moreover, religious vilification against the Pope may ultimately result in the same happening to innocent British Catholics
which clearly implies that trenchant criticism of a particular religious person and critical scrutiny of his actions in legal terms amounts, or may amount, to religious hatred.
That simply proves how lucky we are that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 was watered down before it was passed so that only threatening words intended to stir up religious hatred amount to an offence. Had the legislation been aligned with section 18 of the Public Order Act, as ministers originally wanted, no doubt someone would be asking the Attorney General to prosecute Richard Dawkins already.