Only God Can Fire Pope Benedict After Scandals

Canon Law: Pope Benedict is "untouchable," despite Vatican cover-ups of abuse.

March 25, 2010, 1:11 PM

March 26, 2010— -- As outrage mounted over the latest Catholic Church sex scandal, writer Christopher Hitchens called for the arrest of Pope Benedict XVI, and singer Sinead O'Connor said the pope should face a criminal investigation.

Protesters rallied outside the Vatican, angry that an office under his command had stopped the prosecution in 1996 of Wisconsin priest Lawrence Murphy, who admitted molesting 200 boys at a school for the deaf where he worked for 20 years.

The secret church trial was halted after Murphy made a personal appeal to the future pope asking for mercy.

The Murphy case emerged as Catholic anger was already building over growing sex scandals in Ireland and in the pope's native Germany where his level of trust has fallen to 24 percent, according to a recent Stern magazine poll.

The Vatican continued to be rocked almost daily about new revelations. The New York Times reported today that the pope when he was archbishop of Munich was included on a memo about a priest he had sent to therapy for pedophilia was returning to pastoral work. The priest was later convicted of molesting boys.

French bishops have sent the pope a letter saying they are ashamed of priests who committed "abominable acts" by molesting and raping children.

And the conservative group Legionaries of Christ issued a statement today apologizing for the behavior of the group's founder, Marcial Maciel, who was determined by a church investigation to have molested seminarians and fathered a child by a woman with whom he had a long affair.

Those would be devastating scenarios for most world leaders, but not for the pope.

Experts in canon law say only a heavenly bolt of lightning can take the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from power as the supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

"The only person who can fire him is God," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, who worked at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., and was one of the first whistle blowers when the sex scandals broke in 1984.

"A pope is never forced to resign, not under the current canon law," said Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for the Tablet weekly. "A pope can voluntarily resign, but it's interesting... Who would take his resignation?"

The number of popes who may have resigned has been estimated as high as 10, according to Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

Pope Defenders Call Charges 'Ignoble' Attack

"Pope Celestine V's resignation in 1294 is the most famous because Dante placed him in hell for it," said Reese. "Most modern popes have felt that resignation is unacceptable."

Pope Paul VI expressed that view when he said, "Paternity cannot be resigned."

Others feel that any discussion of a resignation is ridiculous, according to the pope's defenders. On Wednesday, one of Benedict's top aides, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, called the sex scandal accusations "a pretext for attacking the church."

The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano chided the pope's critics, saying the charges are "clearly an ignoble attempt to strike at Pope Benedict and his closest aides at any cost."

Mickens thinks the recent scandals come very close to the pope and the pontiff has demonstrated some shortcomings in handling the issue.

"But I don't want to demonize the pope.... I think that, like all people, he is very concerned about anyone who has been hurt by sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. I think he is horrified," Mickens said.

Much of the criticism of the church's handling of the sex scandals has been that offending priests were simply moved to other parishes or dioceses by bishops eager to protect the church. And from 1981 to the day he became pope, Ratzinger headed the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's disciplinary arm.

"He is really accountable to no one, and that is the history," said former priest Richard Sipe, author of the 1990 book, "A Secret World" about the priesthood. "There have been a pope or two who have resigned, several hundred have been murdered, but it's a very stable organization from the top down. What other monarchy do you know that's lasted for 2,000 years?"

"He is untouchable, there is no question about that," Sipe said.

Sex Abuse Victim Wants Pope Held Accountable

He added, however, "There have to be some kind of consequences. He could use his power to remove these incompetent heads and it would change the church dramatically. That's what the church needs."

Hitchens argues that if Benedict, a former cardinal and one-time archbishop of Munich, Germany, were to hold his archbishops and cardinals accountable for the priests they reassigned, he would "move toward the impeachment of himself."

"He would be calling for his own head," said Hitchens. "But, we'll do it for him."

Hitchens said the pope should not be allowed to escape scrutiny in other parts of the world where sex crimes have been committed by priests under his watch and said there should be an "international warrant" for his arrest.

"He's supposed to be going to London and there is going to be a row about it," said Hitchens.

"If another head of state was being pursued by people with questions about rape of children, would they meet them at the airport, shake their hands and meet the queen?" he asked. "Would they let them fly away again?"

Irish singer Sinead O'Connor ripped into a letter the pope wrote to the people of Ireland apologizing for the years of sexual abuse of young boys, calling it "a study in the fine art of lying."

"There should be a full criminal investigation of the pope. The pope should stand down for the fact that he did not act in a Christian fashion to protect children," she told the Los Angeles Times.

"The pope has to be held accountable," said David Clohessy, who sued the Missouri parish priest who molested him when he was 11.

"He is at the top," said Clohessy, who is now national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"It is totally irresponsible for him to only talk about the abuse," said Clohessy. "He is the decider."