Monday, 12 April 2010

Dawkins and the Pope

I was a bit suspicious when I read yesterday the Sunday Times headline "Dawkins: I will arrest Pope". True, the professor's pronouncements concerning His Heiliness have been somewhat theatrical of late - "a leering old villain in a frock", for example. But after telling us that Dawkins was planning "a legal ambush" during the Pope's visit to Britain, the article went on to describe the idea as a joint venture by the professor and Christopher Hitchens, backed up by two lawyers - and I couldn't help thinking it seemed much more like Hitch's style. Also, one of the lawyers mentioned, the human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC, had already had an article in the Guardian (on Good Friday, deliberately or otherwise) setting out the case he intended to put before the courts. So I guessed one or other of them must have had the brainwave, with Dawkins lending his name as additional weight.

Almost. It turns out the idea was, indeed, Hitchens'. Here's Dawkins' version of events:


Here is what really happened. Christopher Hitchens first proposed the legal challenge idea to me on March 14th. I responded enthusiastically, and suggested the name of a high profile human rights lawyer whom I know. I had lost her address, however, and set about tracking her down. Meanwhile, Christopher made the brilliant suggestion of Geoffrey Robertson. He approached him, and Mr Robertson's subsequent 'Put the Pope in the Dock' article in The Guardian shows him to be ideal. The case is obviously in good hands, with him and Mark Stephens.


Who was the high profile lawyer Dawkins suggested, but couldn't find her address? I'm guessing Helena Kennedy.

The business reminds me of the story of Camp Quest, the humanist summer camp, whose launch in the UK was supported by the Richard Dawkins Foundation with a modest contribution. The Sunday Times inevitably described it as the Dawkins Atheist Camp and presented the initiative as part of the professor's cunning scheme to indoctrinate the next generation in the faith of Atheism and Evolution. He had "come up with a novel idea to wean our children away from God" the report lied, "summer camps for would-be little non-believers." Dawkins was understandably miffed, and did his best to set the record straight. With only limited success, as the Camp Dawkins line had already been recycled on hundreds on news sites. The notion of Richard Dawkins as sort of atheist Pope, personally orchestrating anything ever done by an atheist, is almost as pervasive in the media as the idea that Benedict XVI bears personal responsibility for anything ever done by a priest, and with even less justification.

Similarly, the good professor was angered by yesterday's headline, which he described as "a straight lie". "Needless to say, I did NOT say... anything so personally grandiloquent" he insisted. The title was eventually changed to something less misleading, but which still implied the stunt was his idea. As for Hitchens, he probably would like personally to arrest the Pope; he must be getting fed up with Dawkins always being billed as Number One Atheist.

Of the four horsemen of the Popocalypse, so far it's Robertson who has put forward the most elaborate legal justification for the move. He devotes part of his article to an attempt to prove that the Vatican is not a proper country and that therefore the Pope is not entitled to diplomatic immunity. He points out that the Vatican owes its origin to the 1929 Lateran Treaty with Mussolini's fascist regime and finds it "risible" that statehood "can be created by another country's unilateral declaration." (What about Robertson's native Australia, which was brought into being by a "unilateral" act of the Westminster Parliament?) He also makes much play of the fact that the Holy See is not a full member of the United Nations but only enjoys observer status. But membership of the UN has never been part of the definition of statehood. Switzerland only joined the organisation in 2002. The People's Republic of China was unrecognised by the UN until 1971, largely as a result of the United States vetoing its membership in preference to Taiwan.

An interesting technical point skirted over by Robertson: the Holy See is not quite the same as the Vatican, or even its "metaphysical emanation", as Robertson describes it. It is much older (having a continuous existence since the days of Roman Empire) and does not owe its existence or its diplomatic character to the Lateran Treaty. The Papacy retained its diplomatic missions even after the extinction of the Papal States in 1870. The Vatican, however, is a fully sovereign entity under international law - arguably it possesses greater legal independence than any of the member states of the European Union. It has full diplomatic relations with almost every country in the world (the only significant exceptions being China, Saudi Arabia and Israel) and its officials travel on Vatican passport. Whatever the precise status of the Holy See the Pope's status as a head of state is not really in doubt. Whether or not he should have that status is of course a different question.

The other lawyer involved, Mark Stephens, told the Guardian that he was "convinced we can get over the threshold of immunity." Is he really, or is it just bluster? And even if he managed to persuade a judge that the Vatican did not qualify as a state the problem would remain of finding a crime with which to indict the Pope. One idea would be to send him to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Robertson writes that the ICC "now counts the widespread or systematic sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity." But even its worst enemies don't seriously suggest that the Catholic Church was systematically - as a matter of policy - organising the abuse of children. At most officials within the church failed to act against the abusers or failed to share information with the civil authorities.

These are grave charges, but by no stretch of the imagination do they come within the purview of the ICC. There's more chance of them issuing an arrest warrant for Tony Blair, frankly. No-one suggests that Ratzinger himself abused anyone. If heknowingly suppressed information regarding Father Hullerman while he was Bishop of Munich in the early 1980s there might be a case to answer - but the judicial initiative would have to come from Germany. British lawyers have no authority to launch such actions themselves. "The third option" said Stephens, "is for individuals to lodge civil claims." As he is presumably well aware, however, civil claims for compensation would not lead to anyone's arrest, least of all the Pope's. But then Stephens specialises in media law - and Robertson wrote the textbook. And whatever specious legal reasoning they may employ, this is really just a publicity stunt.

I didn't think I'd say this, but I'm beginning to come round to Damian Thompson's way of thinking, at least in part. It's not that the pope bears no responsibility for his past mistakes - he does - and Thompson minimises the catastrophic damage caused both by Benedict's failure to act more decisively and by his reluctance to offer a full public and personal apology to the victims. But Thompson is surely right to point out that there were bishops and Vatican officials whose actions were more reprehensible, yet who are escaping the intense scrutiny reserved for the man at the top. Ratzinger did too little, too late - but he did so at a time when there were still powerful voices in the Curia who wanted to take no action at all.

That said, the media feeding frenzy is understandable. The Pope is supposed to be the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and he has conspicuously failed to give a lead. He has behaved throughout like a bureaucrat rather than a moral and spiritual leader. He has managed to convey the impression (which may well be true) that the "good of the universal church" matters more to him than the suffering of abused children. Every day he remains in office the church's reputation declines. As Dawkins himself writes gleefully,

He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice - the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution - while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.


Some in this country hope that legal fears will keep the pope from our shores this autumn, or that the government will withdraw its invitation to him. I don't. It'll be fun.