POPES and their officials have long benefited from the Vatican’s unique dual status in international law. As the Vatican City State, it can shelter prelates wanted for questioning elsewhere and play host to offshore financial institutions such as the Vatican Bank. But when world leaders visit the pope in Rome it is to meet the absolute ruler of a global entity, the Holy See. As the Holy See, the Vatican engages in diplomacy, holds observer status at the UN and signs most treaties. The Holy See is sometimes called a sovereign entity without territory, although its sovereign, the pope, is also the ruler of the Vatican City State. It is a legal expression of the Catholic church’s leadership, yet American lawyers for the church have successfully argued that the Vatican is not responsible for Catholic clerics’ wrongdoing.
“On May 23rd the Vatican’s split personality will be put to a new test when a UN committee releases the findings of an inquiry into the Holy See’s compliance with the Convention against Torture, which it signed in 2002. Most of the questions put to the pope’s representative, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, in the public hearings were about the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic clerics. If the committee decides it was torture, a wave of prosecutions of historic offences could follow: there is usually no time limit for bringing torture charges, as there generally is for sex crimes. And if it judges the Holy See accountable for priests’ and bishops’ misconduct, victims’ lawyers may challenge existing jurisprudence and demand compensation from Rome.”
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