Sept. 13, 2011 -- Victims of Catholic clergy sex abuse have formally asked the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into the role played by top Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict, in what the group called "crimes against humanity."
The New York-based legal group Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) announced today that the group, along with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), filed a complaint at the Hague claiming that top Vatican officials tolerated and enabled "the systematic and widespread concealing of rape and child sex crimes throughout the world."
"SNAP wants to prevent even one more child from being raped or sexually assaulted by a priest and we hope that victims around the world will know today that they are not alone and that it is safe to speak up and report their abuse," SNAP President Barbara Blaine said, according to the CCR's statement. "We as victims are mobilizing across the globe, and every survivor is invited to join us."
Pope Benedict XVI is among the top Vatican officials named in the 84-page complaint, which alleges investigators of sex abuse cases in several countries have found "intentional cover-ups and affirmative steps taken that serve to perpetuate the violence and exacerbate the harm." The complaint claims that Benedict, in his former position as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, participated in the cover up.
"Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, either knew and/or some cases consciously disregarded information that showed subordinates were committing or about to commit such crimes," the complaint says.
Blaine said taking the case to the International Criminal Court was a last resort for SNAP.
"We have tried everything we could think of to get them to stop and they won't," she told the Associated Press. "If the Pope wanted to, he could take dramatic action at any time that would help protect children today and in the future, and he refuses to take the action."
Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican's lawyer in the U.S., told the AP the complaint was a "ludicrous publicity stunt and a misuse of international judicial processes."
It's not the first time the Pope and top Vatican officials have been directly accused of sex abuse cover-ups.
In April 2010, Pope Benedict XVI and other officials were accused by members of BishopAccountability.org of covering up alleged child abuse by 19 bishops.
At the time, the Pope told reporters he was "deeply ashamed" of the allegations of sex abuse by his subordinates and reportedly said, "We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry."
Several other accusations followed from alleged victims around the world, prompting Benedict to make a public statement later that month from St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. In his speech, he said the Catholic Church would take action against alleged sexual abusers. The Pope described a tearful meeting in Malta with eight men who claimed to have been abused by clergy there.
"I shared with them their suffering, and with emotion, I prayed with them," said Benedict, "assuring them of church action."
But more than a year later, SNAP said the church has not done enough to prosecute the higher-level officials in cases of alleged cover-ups.
"There has been much talk of 'reforms' and 'zero tolerance' policies by church officials over the past few years," the complaint says. "As recent commissions of inquiry and grand jury findings discussed herein demonstrate, sexual violence is still being committed within the church with impunity and the priest-shifting and cover-ups are still happening, also with impunity."
The International Criminal Court is meant to try cases involving "the most serious crimes of international concern, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes," according to the court's website.
A spokesperson for the church declined to comment on the complaint for this report.
ABC News' Phoebe Natanson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.