VATICAN CITY — Attorneys who have tried unsuccessfully for years to sue the Vatican over failures to stop clergy sex abuse are looking into whether former Pope Benedict XVI is more legally vulnerable in retirement, especially if he travels beyond the Vatican walls.
A U.S. lawyer for the Vatican argues that, like any former head of state, Benedict retains legal immunity regardless of whether he is in or out of office. But advocates for victims say immunity in this case should be tested, since modern-day courts have never before dealt with an emeritus pope.
“So much of this is unprecedented,” said Pamela Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which is pressing the International Criminal Court to investigate the Vatican’s response to abusive priests as a crime against humanity. “There’s nothing set in stone about it.”
Benedict stepped down last week, becoming the first pontiff in six centuries to do so. Before he became head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2005, he spent more than two decades in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that over the years gained authority to oversee abuse claims against clergy worldwide.
Still, his record on trying to end abuse stands above that of many other church officials.
Benedict spoke openly of ridding the church of “filth” and was the first pontiff to meet directly with victims, during a 2008 visit to the U.S.
He told the Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the conservative Legion of Christ religious order to leave the ministry and lead a life of prayer and penance.