* U.S. lawyers want pope to testify
* Vatican official says pope can't be called to do so
* Pope begins Holy Thursday but no mention of scandal
By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY, April 1 Pope Benedict, accused by
victims' lawyers of being ultimately responsible for a cover-up
of sexual abuse of children by priests, cannot be called to
testify at any trial because he has immunity as a head of state,
a top Vatican legal official said on Thursday.
The interview with Giuseppe dalla Torre, head of the
Vatican's tribunal, was published in Italy's Corriere della Sera
newspaper as Pope Benedict began Holy Thursday services in St
Peter's Basilica and Catholics marked the most solemn week of
the liturgical calendar, culminating on Sunday in Easter Day.
The pope did not refer in his sermon to the crisis of
confidence sweeping the Church as almost daily revelations
surface of sexual abuse of children in the past, accompanied by
allegations of a cover-up.
Dalla Torre outlined the Vatican's strategy to defend the
pope from being forced to testify in several lawsuits concerning
sexual abuse which are currently moving through the U.S. legal
"The pope is certainly a head of state, who has the same
juridical status as all heads of state," he said, arguing he
therefore had immunity from foreign courts.
Lawyers representing victims of sexual abuse by priests in
several cases in the United States have said they would want the
pope to testify in an attempt to try to prove the Vatican was
But the pope is protected by diplomatic immunity because
more than 170 countries, including the United States, have
diplomatic relations with the Vatican. They recognise it as a
sovereign state and the pope as its sovereign head.
Dalla Torre rejected suggestions that U.S. bishops, some of
whom have been accused of moving molesters from parish to parish
instead of turning them in to police, could be considered
Vatican employees, making their "boss" ultimately responsible.
CHURCH NOT A MULTI-NATIONAL
"The Church is not a multi-national corporation," dalla
Torre said. "He has (spiritual) primacy over the Church ... but
every bishop is legally responsible for running a diocese."
Dalla Torre also rejected suggestions by some U.S. lawyers
and critics of the Church that Vatican documents in 1962 and
2001 encouraged local bishops not to report sexual abuse cases.
He re-stated the Vatican's position that the documents, one
of which called for procedures to remain secret, did not suggest
to bishops that they should not report cases to authorities.
"Secrecy served above all to protect the victim and also the
accused, who could turn out to be innocent, and it regarded only
the canonical (church) trial and did not substitute the penal
process," he said.
"There is nothing that prohibited anyone (in the Church)
from giving information to civil authorities."
As the scandal has swept across Europe, bishops trying to
contain damage have held special meetings with shaken Catholics.
On Wednesday night in Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn
told an emotional gathering the Catholic Church as a whole must
accept its guilt and its collective responsibility for sexual
abuse committed by its members.
The Vatican has taken off the gloves in its response to
media reports alleging the pope mishandled a series of abuse
cases before he was elected.
It launched a frontal attack on the New York Times on
Wednesday night by posting a long statement on its website
(http:/www.vatican.va/resources/resources_card-levada2010_en.html)by Cardinal William J. Levada, who succeeded the pope as head of
the Vatican's doctrinal department.
Levada asked the newspaper "to reconsider its attack mode
about Pope Benedict XVI and give the world a more balanced view
of a leader it can and should count on".
The Vatican has denied any cover-up over the abuse of 200
deaf boys in the United States by Reverend Lawrence Murphy from
1950 to 1974. The New York Times reported the Vatican and
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, were warned about
Murphy but he was not defrocked.
The Times said its reports were "based on meticulous
reporting and documents."
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Zawadil in Vienna; editing
by Mark Trevelyan)