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Does pope retain legal immunity in retirement?

Posted Mar 6, 2013 9:03 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Pope Benedict XVI. vipflash / Shutterstock.com

Will former Pope Benedict XVI lose legal protections because of his retirement in actions seeking to hold the Vatican accountable for failing to stop clergy abuse?

The answer is no, according to Jeffrey Lena, a U.S. attorney for the Vatican. He maintains that Benedict would have the same legal immunity as other high-ranking officials, the Associated Press reports. The Vatican has legal treaties that govern relations with several countries that could provide additional legal protections.

But Minnesota lawyer Jeff Anderson, who has filed several clergy abuse lawsuits, says Benedict’s decision to retire could create legal problems if he travels outside the Vatican and a government decides to take action against him.

Anderson says the resignation should have no impact on civil suits in the United States, however. The lawyer says some of his suits targeted the office of the papacy, but not the pope himself, so retirement should have no impact.

Duquesne law professor Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer, has fears about action against the retired pope if he travels. In Europe, magistrates can arrest and detain officials before trial, creating a risk for Benedict, he tells AP.

"Americans don't appreciate the vast powers that investigating magistrates have in Europe," Cafardi told AP. "It only takes one who wants to make a name for him or herself to issue an arrest warrant for the former pope."

The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York is taking a different tack, as it urges the International Criminal Court to investigate the Vatican response to priest sex abuse as a crime against humanity. A lawyer with the center, Pamela Spees, told AP that court prosecutors don’t take into account immunity claims, so Benedict’s resignation has no impact.

Lena has said the call for action by the International Criminal Court is “ludicrous.”

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