Last week, German newspapers reported that Pope Benedict XVI had been sued by an anonymous citizen for “repeatedly violat[ing] German seatbelt laws during a visit to Freiburg in September.” Allegedly armed with YouTube videos of the Catholic leader recklessly standing “for more than an hour” in his famous Popemobile, the suit requests the maximum fine of 2,500 euros for repeated violations of the misdemeanor. Lowering The Bar investigated further and discovered that even if the Pope did neglect to buckle up in the bulletproof Plexiglas cabin of his armored Mercedes-Benz, diplomatic immunity provides yet another layer of papal protection from an overzealous Verkehrspolizist. (Though he should be more careful in the future - the 5-ton Popemobile can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in a respectable six seconds, and can achieve a top speed of 160 mph.)
With the German attorney outright admitting that the suit was really intended to raise public awareness of the country’s seatbelt laws, the Vatican’s legal department was free to focus on offensive rather than defensive strategies. In November, threats of legal action convinced fashion company Benetton to pull an advertisement which depicted the Pope in a doctored kiss with Egyptian imam Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb. The Vatican has indicated that it will continue to pursue legal avenues, even after the company's voluntary removal of the ads featuring the Pope.
But in this particular case, the Vatican may wish to adopt the more laissez-faire attitude of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (who shrugged off his own Benetton-created lip-lock with President Barack Obama yesterday in a press conference), because they may have a far more serious legal situation on the horizon. In mid-September, a group called Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) petitioned the International Criminal Court in The Hague, requesting that an investigation be opened for crimes against humanity by the Pope and several high-ranking Catholic cardinals, stemming from the worldwide clergy sex abuse scandals from the early 1980s to the present day. (The complaint, and thousands of pages of supporting documentation, can be read at http://ccrjustice.org/ICCVaticanProsecution.) Most ICC-watchers think it’s unlikely that the Prosecutor will decide that the complaint falls within the court’s jurisdiction (NY Times). SNAP provides a FAQ sheet on its website, addressing this and other questions about the filing.
ICC jurisdiction can be triggered by a State Party’s referral, by the UN Security Council or by the Prosecutor acting of his own volition (proprio motu). It is rare for the ICC Prosecutor to invoke his proprio motu power; the first such instance since the Court’s creation in 2002 did not occur until late 2009. Article 15 of the Rome Statute (PDF) does not specify a time frame for the Prosecutor’s determination whether to proceed proprio motu, so it remains to be seen whether the ICC will open a formal investigation into the SNAP complaint. But if you'd like to learn more about the inner workings of the ICC in the meantime, consult the resources in our International Criminal Law research guide, or Ask a Librarian.