In Brief

Dawkins and Hitchens planto have Pope arrested

Lawyers say atheists Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins may have case against Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI

Outspoken atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have asked lawyers to look into the possibility of having Pope Benedict XVI arrested when he visits Britain in September.

Dawkins, the writer of a number of anti-religious books, including The God Delusion, and Hitchens, who wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, have asked the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson and the media lawyer Mark Stephens to build a case against the Pope, based around his alleged attempts to cover up child abuse committed by Roman Catholic priests.

Dawkins told the Sunday Times: "This is a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence."

Robertson and Stephens believe the Pope would not enjoy the immunity normally given to visiting heads of states - because the Vatican is not recognised as a state by the United Nations. "The Vatican is not actually a state in international law," Stephens told the Sunday Times. "It is not recognised by the UN, it does not have borders that are policed and its relations are not of a full diplomatic nature." The lawyers say the Pope could be charged with crimes against humanity; proceedings could be initiated by the Crown Prosecution Service or even the International Criminal Court.

Dawkins's and Hitchens's audacious new line of assault comes as the Pope faces new revelations that he was overly lenient to priests convicted of child abuse when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A letter written in Latin and signed by then Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985 opposed the defrocking of Stephen Kiesle, an American priest sentenced to three years' probation for lewd conduct with two boys in San Francisco in 1978.

The letter said the "good of the universal Church" needed to be considered in any defrocking. Kiesle was eventually defrocked in 1987 and went on to molest a young girl in 1995.

Meanwhile, the Rt Reverend Arthur Roche, the Bishop of Leeds, has been criticised for failing to take child abuse seriously as it emerged he failed to defrock a priest who abused boys at a school for the deaf in West Yorkshire.

Father Neil Gallanagh pleaded guilty in 2005 to indecently assaulting two boys at the St John's School for the Deaf in Boston Spa while chaplain there in the 1970s. He was handed a six-month suspended sentence, but Bishop Roche allowed Gallanagh, by then retired, to remain a priest.

The Pope could defuse the row ahead of his visit to Britain, which begins on September 16, by promising to meet the victims of paedophile priests. Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - an American group which is to open in the UK due to a surge in demand from British victims - and One in Four UK have called for such meetings.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi has intimated that the Pope would be amenable to meeting victims in Britain. He wrote in a press release: "In the context of this concern for victims, the Pope has written of his readiness to hold new meetings with them, thus sharing in the journey of the entire ecclesiastical community."

However, the meetings would almost certainly be held in secret and with carefully vetted individuals. The Pope has already met victims of child abuse under these conditions in Australia and the US - and has been criticised for doing so. Maeve Lewis, a representative of One in Four UK, told the Guardian: "In Australia and the USA, there was no opportunity for victims to set their own agenda. There was no chance to ask difficult questions."

It may be time for the Pope to start making concessions.

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