Rome - By remaining in the Vatican after resigning later this month, Pope Benedict XVI will enjoy immunity from prosecution in connection with the global epidemic of clergy sex abuse claims.
The Pope's decision to live in the Vatican City, a sovereign state, after his retirement means that he will be protected by both Vatican security and diplomatic immunity.
"His continued presence in the Vatican is necessary, otherwise he might be defenseless," a Vatican official told Reuters under the condition of anonymity. "He wouldn't have his immunity, his prerogatives, his security if he is anywhere else."
The source added that the pontiff should lead a "dignified existence" for the rest of his life.
Under the Lateran Pacts, the 1929 treaty between Italy and the Holy See that established the Vatican City as a sovereign state, those with Vatican citizenship enjoy immunity even if they travel into Italy. The Pope also enjoys diplomatic immunity as an official head of state. Efforts by renowned British evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins and the late British-American author Christopher Hitchens to have Benedict arrested and prosecuted during a 2010 visit to Britain came to naught because of the Pontiff's diplomatic immunity.
But such immunity means that Benedict, whose pre-papal name was Joseph Ratzinger, would not be eligible for prosecution in connection with the worldwide epidemic of Catholic clergy sex abuse, mostly of children. Critics claim Ratzinger was instrumental in covering up allegations of abuse and protecting offending priests and other clergy.
"His record is terrible," David Clohessy, US executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told the Guardian. "Before he became pope, his predecessor put him in charge of abuse claims."
"He has read thousands of pages of reports of the abuse cases from around the world," Clohessy continued. "He knows more about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups than anyone else in the church yet he has done precious little to protect children."
Victims groups claim that as head of the Vatican's doctrinal department, Ratzinger turned a blind eye as local churches moved priests and other clergy who raped and molested children and other parishioners from parish to parish instead of defrocking them and alerting law enforcement authorities. Ratzinger, who was in positions of power in the Catholic church for three decades, should have done more, critics say.
Classified US embassy cables published by the whistleblowing website Wikileaks in 2010 revealed that the Vatican under Benedict refused to allow its officials to testify before an Irish commission investigating decades of child sex abuse. Even more shocking, a 'smoking gun' 1997 letter from the Vatican to Catholic bishops in Ireland ordering them to refrain from reporting child sex abuse cases proved that the highest levels of the Catholic church were complicit in a massive cover-up. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny slammed the Vatican for its "absolutely disgraceful" behavior in the scandal.
In March 2010, the Pope apologized to Irish Catholics for the abuse, admitting that "serious mistakes" were made by the church involving its response to the widespread sex abuse.
"You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry," Benedict wrote in his apology letter.
Norbert Denef, a 64-year-old German who was sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy, was offered money in exchange for silence about his six-year ordeal. Denef told the Guardian that he "won't miss this pope," adding that the Vatican's behavior in the child abuse scandal was akin to "mafia-style organized crime rings."
Speaking of the Mafia, the Vatican's alleged criminal activity isn't limited to sex abuse and cover-up. In 2010, Italian prosecutors tied the Vatican Bank to a Mafia money laundering scheme and seized €23 million ($30.7 million).
The Vatican counters that the Pope cannot be held accountable for abuses committed by lower-ranking clergy because those people are employed by local dioceses and are not direct employees of the Vatican.
While the Vatican leadership continues to deny responsibility for the abuse scandal that has touched every inhabited continent on earth, new allegations keep making headlines. In Los Angeles, where disgraced Cardinal Roger Mahony and other top church officials conspired to protect child-raping priests and other abusive clergy, the names of two dozen additional suspected abusers have just been released. More than 500 victims of past church sex abuse reached a $660 million settlement with the archdiocese in 2007, the largest such payout in church history.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi defended the Pope's record, telling Reuters that Benedict "gave the fight against sexual abuse a new impulse, ensuring that new rules were put in place to prevent further abuse and to listen to victims."
"That was a great merit of his papacy and for that we will be grateful," Lombardi said.