(Photo: AP Photo / Pier Paolo Cito)
LONDON - Atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins wants Pope Benedict XVI to be arrested during his state visit to Britain in September.
Dawkins and atheist author Christopher Hitchens have approached human rights lawyers about whether the pontiff can be arrested over his alleged cover-up of child abuse by Catholic priests.
The pope is due to visit London, Glasgow and Coventry during his state visit to the United Kingdom from Sept. 16 to 19.
The atheist campaigners believe the pope should be arrested for “crimes against humanity” and believe he can be arrested using the same legal principle that led to the arrest of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet during his 1998 visit to Britain.
“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," said Dawkins, author of The God Delusion.
“This man is not above or outside the law,” added Hitchens, author of God is Not Great. “The institutionalized concealment of child rape is a crime under any law and demands not private ceremonies of repentance or church-funded payoffs, but justice and punishment."
In recent weeks, the pope has faced intense scrutiny over his handling of child abuse cases across Europe and in the United States.
Over the weekend, it emerged that Benedict, as a cardinal, had signed a letter in 1985 cautioning that the “good of the universal church” should be weighed up against any action taken against Californian priest Stephen Kiesle, who had a record of abusing boys.
In light of this and other news, the lawyers for Dawkins and Hitchens say they believe there is a case for the pope’s arrest and say he cannot claim diplomatic immunity as he is does not head a state recognized by the United Nations.
“There is every possibility of legal action against the pope occurring,” one of the lawyers, Mark Stephens, was quoted by The Times as saying. “Geoffrey [Robertson] and I have both come to the view that the Vatican is not actually a state in international law. It is not recognized by the U.N., it does not have borders that are policed and its relations are not of a full diplomatic nature.”
The Vatican, meanwhile, has denied reports claiming that the pope had attempted to block the defrocking of Kiesle, suggesting that the abuse scandal had been orchestrated by opponents of the pope.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano: "The pope embodies moral truths that aren't accepted, and so, the shortcomings and errors of priests are used as weapons against the Church."
In light of the abuse scandal, security has been tightened for the pope’s two-day visit to Malta this week over fears of protests. Posters promoting the pontiff’s visit have been defaced by Adolf Hitler style moustaches and the word “pedophile.”
The Mediterranean island, which is 90 percent Roman Catholic, has not escaped the abuse scandal rocking the Church. Many of the abuse claims on the island involve the St. Joseph Orphanage at Santa Venera.
The pope is visiting the island to mark 1950 years since the apostle Paul was shipwrecked there.