|Many victims say no senior church officials have been held to account for sheltering guilty clerics [EPA]
An international group for victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests has asked the International Criminal Court to prosecute Pope Benedict XVI and three other senior Vatican officials for crimes against humanity.
The Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said on Tuesday it had filed the complaint with the ICC with help from lawyers from the non-profit US Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR).
They called on the court "take action and prosecute the Pope and three other high-ranking Vatican officials for their direct and superior responsibility for the crimes against humanity of rape and other sexual violence committed around the world".
The Catholic Church has been rocked by a series of sexual-abuse scandals and allegations of cover-up in Europe and the US in recent years. But this is the first time the sexual-abuse scandal has been brought to an international jurisdiction, marking a new approach by victims and rights groups.
The three other Vatican officials the group is asking that they be investigated are Tarcisio Bertone, the cardinal secretary of state; Angelo Sodano, his predecessor; and William Levada, a US cardinal.
Levada is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office designated to investigate sex abuse cases forwarded to it by bishops.
Federico Lombardi, Levada's spokesperson, refused to comment.
Pam Spees, a CCR lawyer, said in a statement that "the Vatican officials charged in this case are responsible for rape and other sexual violence and for the physical and psychological torture of victims around the world both through command responsibility and through direct cover-up of crimes.
"They should be brought to trial like any other officials guilty of crimes against humanity".
SNAP said it had submitted more than 20,000 pages of supporting material, but some international law experts have suggested the case might not go very far.
"Firstly, a prerequisite for crimes against humanity is that it has to be perpetrated by a State, or 'state-like' organisation," Herman van der Wilt, a professor of international law at Amsterdam University, told the AFP news agency.
"And secondly, ... the ICC would not be able to investigate any crimes committed before July 1, 2002, when its mandate commenced according to its founding statute."
The ICC prosecutor has received nearly 9,000 independent proposals for inquiries since 2002, when the court was created as the world's only permanent war crimes tribunal, and has never opened a formal investigation based solely on such a request.
The ICC prosecutor's office said the evidence would be studied.
"We first have to analyse whether the alleged crimes fall under the court's jurisdiction,'' it said in a statement.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the Survivors Network argued that no other national entity exists that will prosecute high-level Vatican officials who failed to protect children.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, David Clohessy, the director of SNAP, says that there are "only a handful of bishops who have been disciplined or demoted or even denounced by the Vatican officials for hiding child sex crimes, only a handful out of 5,000 across the globe.
"Church officials take no meaningful steps. There are a lot of words, a lot of promises and a lot of policies on paper. But on a day-to-day basis, each bishop continues to act as the old of his own kingdom and protect priests and shuffle priests and do the absolute bare minimum he possible can to keep this under wraps.
We have somewhat reluctantly come to the conclusion that it really will take secular officials on a global level to try to prevent this kind of violence on a widespread continuing basis."
Megan Peterson, a 21-year-old SNAP member who spoke publicly of her abuse for the first time last week, was among those backing the initiative.
Describing her ordeal, she recalled: "When at age 15, I called the diocese to report the rapes they hung up on me."
She called on the ICC to "take this case seriously and do the right thing".
"I don't want any more kids to go through what I went through," she said.
The Roman Catholic Church is struggling to deal with rising anger and a string of lawsuits after thousands of child abuse claims in Europe and the US.
The latest major crisis came in July, when Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, launched a ferocious attack on the Roman Catholic Church's "absolutely disgraceful" failure to deal with years of sexual abuse of children by priests.
Benedict has expressed shame and sorrow over the clerical sex scandal and has called on bishops around the world to come up with common guidelines against paedophiles by May 2012.
But the issue shows no sign of going away.
Nick Xenophon, an Australian senator, named on Tuesday a Catholic priest who allegedly raped a teenage boy in assaults dating back about 50 years, after the church refused his demand that they withdraw him from his post.