Vatican pleads immunity to protect Pope from abuse hearings

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POPE Benedict XVI, accused by victims' lawyers of being ultimately responsible for a cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests, cannot be called to testify because he has diplomatic immunity, claims a Vatican official.

Tribunal head Giuseppe dalla Torre told an Italian newspaper that the pontiff was exempt as he is a serving head of state. His comments came as the Pope began Holy Thursday services in St Peter's Basilica, in what is the most solemn week of the Catholic calendar, culminating on Easter Sunday.

In his sermon, the Pope did not refer to the crisis of confidence that has followed almost daily revelations of sexual abuse and cover-ups involving the clergy.

Mr Dalla Torre said: "The Pope is certainly a head of state, who has the same juridical status as all heads of state."

Lawyers representing victims of sexual abuse by priests in several cases in the United States have said they would want the Pope to testify as they attempt to prove that the Vatican has been negligent.

But the Pope is protected by diplomatic immunity because more than 170 countries have diplomatic relations with the Vatican. They recognise it as a sovereign state and the Pope as its sovereign head.

The Vatican has diplomatic protection as past treaties recognise it as a sovereign state, with the Pope as its ruler. But Mr Dalla Torre said: "The Church is not a multinational corporation. He has primacy over the Church … but every bishop is legally responsible for running a diocese."

Cardinals across Europe came to Pope Benedict's defence yesterday, as the Church started to co-ordinate a fightback against the scandals.