AMSTERDAM Victims of sexual abuse by the clergy want the International Criminal Court to investigate Pope Benedict and three Vatican officials, accusing them of allowing the rape and abuse of children.
The New York-based rights group Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and another group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), filed a complaint with the ICC alleging that Vatican officials committed crimes against humanity because they tolerated and enabled sex crimes.
But it seems unlikely that the ICC, the world's first permanent war crimes court, could take on such a case.
Many of the crimes occurred before 2002, when the ICC was set up, which puts them outside the court's remit, while the Vatican itself has not signed up to the court's jurisdiction.
"It will be very difficult to make an argument that the Church as an organized group committed a crime against humanity and it would be debatable whether that was based on a common plan," said Andre de Hoogh, a senior lecturer in international law at Groningen University.
The Catholic Church has been rocked by a series of sexual abuse scandals and allegations of cover-up in Europe and the United States in recent years.
But this is the first time the sexual abuse scandal has been brought to an international jurisdiction, marking a new approach by victims and rights groups.
Victim support groups, which usually target church officials with their lawsuits, have increasingly sought to implicate the Vatican in their legal action.
In its filing with the ICC on Tuesday, rights group CCR alleged that sex abuse crimes were "widespread and systematic."
"Crimes against tens of thousands of victims, most of them children, are being covered up by officials at the highest level of the Vatican. In this case, all roads really do lead to Rome," CCR lawyer Pam Spees said.
A Vatican spokesman said there would be no immediate comment.
"The Office of the Prosecutor has received the documents," spokeswoman Florence Olara said, adding the prosecutor's office "will analyze ... and make a decision in due course."
While the Vatican has not signed up to the ICC, countries such as Italy, the Netherlands and Germany have done so, which means that their citizens are subject to ICC jurisdiction.
Pope Benedict is German-born and because a pope retains his nationality when he also takes on Vatican nationality this could potentially expose him to ICC prosecution.
"It is a very slim avenue, but it's an avenue nonetheless," said Lorraine Smith at the International Bar Association, which monitors the ICC. "But there is still the issue of the timing of the offences."
Alongside a filing of more than 80 pages, CCR said it had lodged more than 20,000 pages of supporting material including reports, policy papers and evidence of crimes by Catholic clergy committed against children and vulnerable adults.
SNAP members from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States travelled to The Hague to file the request.
It names Pope Benedict, former Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, current Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone and Cardinal William Levada, the top doctrinal official.
Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn publicly accused Sodano last year of blocking a Church inquiry into his predecessor, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who stepped down in 1995 after being accused of sexually abusing young student priests.
The ICC has investigated crimes including genocide, murder, conscription of child soldiers and rape, mostly in Africa. In June, it issued an arrest warrant for Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
The prosecutor's office has received more than 9,000 requests for investigations, but has said almost half of them were "manifestly outside" its jurisdiction.
In June, Syrian human rights groups called on the court to investigate the killing of civilians in Syria, but the court lacks jurisdiction there because Syria is not an ICC member.
The Rome Statute that set up the court also stipulates that the ICC should be used as a court of last resort only if national proceedings are not taking place.
The prosecutor must first seek approval from ICC judges before formally opening an investigation.
(Reporting by Aaron Gray-Block, Tom Heneghan and Philip Pullella; Editing by Janet Lawrence)