CNN Legal Contributor: Catholic Clergy Sex Abuses Could Qualify as War Crimes

CNN's legal contributor, and former legal analyst, Sunny Hostin stated Tuesday that the sex abuse cases involving the Catholic clergy could be considered war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

"I mean this is a war crimes tribunal and that is not to say that perhaps these crimes don't qualify as war crimes because we know that sex crimes and sexual violence do qualify," she maintained. However, she added that most cases seen by the ICC stem from genocide or violence in war-torn countries.

Hostin's statement came during CNN's coverage of the efforts of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) to have the pope prosecuted by the ICC for "crimes against humanity."

Both experts hosted by the network acknowledged that the case will probably not even reach the court.

However, Sunny Hostin gave credence to the lawsuit. "I don't think it's a frivolous lawsuit by any stretch of the imagination or a frivolous complaint," Hostin claimed. "I think that it's probably a good move by SNAP."

CNN anchor Randi Kaye asked guest John Allen of the heterodox National Catholic Reporter if the suit "could be a good thing," noting it could bring the whole issue "more to the forefront again."

Allen affirmed that it would be a "long shot" for the case to reach the ICC. He did opine that "it's unquestionably a good thing for the victims and their advocates" that the issue is receiving attention.

A transcript of the segment, which aired on September 13 at 1:24 p.m. EDT, is as follows:

RANDI KAYE: Some victims of priest abuse want the pope prosecuted for crimes against humanity. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, also called SNAP, claims the pope and other church leaders, quote, "tolerate and enable the systemic and widespread concealing of rape and child sex crimes throughout the world." To support its claim, SNAP has filed more than 20,000 documents with the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. A Vatican spokesmen tells CNN he's aware of the filing but he has no comment. Last June the pope had this to day about the ongoing abuses.

(Video Clip)

POPE BENEDICT XVI (through translator): We do insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again. And that --

(End Video Clip)

KAYE: Now, the pope says that he's doing everything he can to protect children and prevent these abuses, but SNAP still claims that he and other officials are turning a blind eye to the issues at hand. So, is this just a big PR stunt or does the group really have a legitimate case? Here to weigh in, legal contributor from "In Session" on TruTV, Sunny Hostin. Sunny, nice to see you. This is a pretty serious case to talk about with you today. Does SNAP have a real case here?

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN legal contributor: You know, I think it certainly has a real case. But the question is whether or not it really will even get there. Whether or not the International Criminal Court will even open up an investigation.

I mean this is a war crimes tribunal and that is not to say that perhaps these crimes don't qualify as war crimes because we know that sex crimes and sexual violence do qualify. But the type of crimes that historically are brought before this court are things like the violence in Libya, Randi, that we've seen recently, child soldiers in Darfur, genocide. Things like that. And so this certainly is a bit different.

It's also a court of last jurisdiction, last resort. And so I think in that sense, because a lot of these crimes are being prosecuted in the United States priest by priest, church by church, that sort of lends against having it tried in front of this type of court, an International Criminal Court located in the Netherlands.

So I don't think it's a frivolous lawsuit by any stretch of the imagination or a frivolous complaint, but certainly will it withstand scrutiny by the ICC, I think is going to be pretty difficult.

KAYE: When you hear the pope being accused of crimes against humanity, I mean, can you prosecute the pope? Can you prosecute the Vatican?

HOSTIN: Well, that's the thing. I mean, you know, the Holy See is certainly not a member state of the court. However, they are – you know, there are churches around the world and in those jurisdictions they are sort of members of this court. So it is a stretch.

But the reason they're suing or filing this complaint against the pope is because he was the leader of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and he had responsibility – overall responsibility – for overseeing and prosecuting these abuse cases. And so in that sense, he would be someone that would be subject to suit in front of the ICC. But again, I think it's such a political hot potato, Randi. I think it's unlikely that this will succeed in front of this court.

But it succeeded in the sense that it's brought this issue, once again, in front of the international community. And it's such an important issue. People and children were harmed and continue to be harmed. And so, for that reason alone, I think that it's probably a good move by SNAP.

KAYE: Sunny, hang with us. I want to bring in CNN's Vatican analyst, John Allen, who's also out with a new book, "The Future Church." John, I want to get your take on this case. If it is picked up by the ICC, the International Criminal Court, what could this mean for the pope and what could it mean for the Vatican?

JOHN ALLEN, senior correspondent, National Catholic Reporter: Hey, Randi. Well, I would agree with what Sunny just told you, it's certainly what I've been hearing from international law experts around the world today, which is, it's a long shot that the ICC would touch this. But if that were to happen, it really would be a novelty because while the Vatican has been sued before for its role in the sexual abuse crisis, most prominently in American courts, there's currently a case in federal district court in Oregon that's going on. In each of those cases, it's been able to invoke its sovereign immunity under international law.

Of course the Holy See is a sovereign state. The pope is a head of state. They have diplomatic relations with 179 countries. And so they've been able to use that, if you like, as a shield. And so none of these cases have ever gone beyond the jurisdictional stage of whether courts can even hear them. If the ICC were to open a case for the first time, the Vatican could, at least in theory, be compelled to defend its records, not on jurisdictional grounds, but on the merits. And that would certainly be a new development.

KAYE: John, is there any way that this could be a good thing? I mean, like Sunny mentioned, it might bring it more to the forefront again.

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014