High-profile atheist Richard Dawkins is backing a push to have Pope Benedict arrested over the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal when the pontiff visits Britain later this year.
High-profile barrister and human rights campaigner Geoffrey Robertson has advised Dawkins and author Christopher Hitchens that legal action can be taken against the Pope over his alleged cover-up of sex abuse in the Catholic Church.
In 1985, in his then capacity as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict signed a letter arguing that the good of the universal church should be considered before the defrocking of an American priest who committed sex offences against two boys.
Dawkins and Hitchens are hoping to exploit the same legal principle used to arrest former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on a Spanish warrant when he visited the UK in 1998.
They will argue the Pope does not have diplomatic immunity from prosecution as a head of state because the Vatican has “permanent observer status” at the United Nations rather than full membership and voting rights.
The Pope will tour Britain in September. The four-day trip from September 16 to 19 will be the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit in 1982 and is the first official papal visit to Britain.
The Catholic Church has rejected claims the Pope helped to cover up abuse by priests and the Vatican has accused the media of waging a “despicable campaign of defamation” against him.
Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene, told the Sunday Times newspaper he suspected child abuse by church members had been covered up.
Hitchens, who published a book in 2007 called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, said: “This man is not above or outside the law. The institutionalised concealment of child abuse is a crime under any law.”
Critics have accused Pope Benedict of negligence in handling abuse cases in previous roles as a cardinal in his native Germany and in Rome.
The Vatican has denied any cover-up over the abuse of 200 deaf boys in the United States.
The Pope has not commented directly on the wave of sexual abuse allegations that has shaken the Catholic Church around the world, including the US, Ireland, Italy and Germany.