Throughout its 45-year history, the Center for Constitutional Rights hasn’t been timid about tackling legal cases that are daunting or perhaps seem even hopeless.
Founded in 1966 by a group of attorneys that included William Kunstler and Arthur Kinoy, the Center initially was designed to offer support to civil rights activists who were trying to end racial segregation in the Deep South. Unlike other legal firms doing similar work such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center would even take on cases that it thought were not winnable as part of its “success without victory” strategy.
The Center’s attorneys realized that sometimes increasing public awareness about a particular situation or injustice was almost as important as setting a legal precedent. Not that the Center never won; it did, and often.
One successful case occurred in 1965, when the Center sued the Louisiana Un-American Activities Committee. It stopped the committee from using anti-government subversion laws to arrest and harass civil rights workers. Later, of course, Kunstler and others went on to defend the “Chicago 8” after the riots and political demonstrations that occurred outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Other victories overturned early state restrictions on abortion, led to a Supreme Court ruling that ended prohibitions on burning the U.S. flag as a method of protest, and established U.S. courts’ jurisdiction over the alleged terrorist detainees being held in secret at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.
In other words, the Center often was a metaphorical David pitted against a much more powerful Goliath representing the status quo. It might be fitting, then, that the Center’s latest target is the Vatican.
Acting as attorneys on behalf of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the Center last week formally petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate the Vatican for crimes against humanity.
Included with its complaint, the Center submitted more than 20,000 pages of supporting materials consisting of reports, policy papers and other documents that it says prove the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church willfully and deliberately covered up instances of child sexual abuse by clergy.
SNAP members from the United States, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands traveled to the Hague-based court to ask that it prosecute Pope Benedict XVI and three other high-ranking Vatican officials for their “direct and superior responsibility for countless crimes committed around the world.”
“Crimes against tens of thousands of victims, most of them children, are being covered up by officials at the highest level of the Vatican,” said Pamela Spees, the Center’s senior staff attorney, in a prepared statement.
“The institution operates with impunity and without accountability. These Vatican officials charged are responsible for the physical and psychological torture of victims around the world, both through command responsibility and through direct cover-up of crimes,” Spees added. “They should be brought to trial like any other officials guilty of crimes against humanity.”
The other Vatican officials mentioned in the complaint are Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state; Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals; and Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the church organization that investigates allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
SNAP’s 71-page complaint outlines precisely why those individuals were singled out for possible prosecution in ample and occasionally lurid detail. Available freely on the Internet, it makes for eye-opening reading about the way the Catholic Church functions, compiling material from multiple sources.
Among the cases cited are one involving an 11-year-girl who, after being raped by her priest and becoming pregnant, was taken for an abortion by him; a fifth-grade girl who was groped by her priest while she lay immobilized in traction in a hospital bed; and a boy who woke up intoxicated in a priest’s bed to find the priest performing oral sex on him while three other priests watched and masturbated.
The complaint also specifies how the Church often would protect the offenders from prosecution and move them to new assignments.
After the Sept. 13 filing in The Hague, SNAP embarked on a 12-city tour through Europe. Members asked local dioceses to turn over relevant documents and encouraged other victims of sexual abuse to come forward. The tour concludes on the day this column is written, Sept. 20, in Rome. Fitting.
Although the filing has received much media attention in Europe, the coverage in the United States has been relatively scant.
As several legal experts have noted, it’s uncertain whether the court will accept the case and, even if it does, whether the Vatican would recognize its jurisdiction. That’s because the Vatican has never ratified the treaty that created the court in 2002.
Nevertheless, the attempt at prosecution is important in and of itself, said David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director.
As Clohessy told Time magazine, “We’re not naïve. We don’t think the Pope will be hauled off in handcuffs next week or next month. But by the same token, our long-term chances are excellent. We’ve been around 23 years, and we can’t count the number of times when church officials or church observers have said to us, ‘What you’re asking won’t and can’t ever be done.’ Ultimately, we believe that victims, witnesses and whistle-blowers across the planet will continue to come forward, and at some point the evidence and political courage will cause the (court) to act.”
Or, as the Center’s mission statement reads, “(The Center) accepts cases and projects based on principle and the value of the struggle itself, not solely by using a calculus of victory. There are cases which (the Center) has worked on tenaciously for decades before success was achieved, yet we stood by the cause and the client.”
It adds, “We will continue to take these types of cases because justice demands it.”
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