As soon as the news broke last week that Pope Benedict XVI would become the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to step down from the papacy, many people (myself included) wondered if the reason he gave for resigning — his advanced age — was the whole story. I wrote that the abruptness of the pope’s exit seemed odd and speculated that perhaps he was either close to death or leaving swiftly to avoid some kind of scandal.
Shortly afterwards rumors began to circulate that Benedict XVI will meet this week with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano to “beg for imunity” from prosecution in connection with child sex abuse cases, in response to a “supposed note” sent to the Vatican by an “undisclosed European government” threatening to issue a warrant for the pope’s arrest. The allegations spread like wildfire on social media, but I decided against posting them or writing about them because no respected mainstream news outlets were reporting the story and the whole business about “undisclosed European goverments” and “supposed notes” didn’t pass the smell test. I put the story on the rumor/conspiracy theory pile due to a lack of credible sources.
As it turns out, though, these rumors may have at least a grain of truth in them. Reuters posted a story that appeared to confirm a portion of last week’s gossip — not the begging and not a phantom note from an as-yet-unknown European government, but that minimizing Benedict’s potential exposure to criminal charges surrounding his handling of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals may indeed be one of the reasons he and church officials decided the soon-to-be-former pope would live out his remaining years on Vatican soil:
Pope Benedict’s decision to live in the Vatican after he resigns will provide him with security and privacy. It will also offer legal protection from any attempt to prosecute him in connection with sexual abuse cases around the world, Church sources and legal experts say.
“His continued presence in the Vatican is necessary, otherwise he might be defenseless. He wouldn’t have his immunity, his prerogatives, his security, if he is anywhere else,” said one Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity. . .
“(If he lived anywhere else) then we might have those crazies who are filing lawsuits, or some magistrate might arrest him like other (former) heads of state have been for alleged acts while he was head of state,” one source said.
Another official said: “While this was not the main consideration, it certainly is a corollary, a natural result.”
But Benedict won’t have to spend the rest of his life holed up behind Vatican walls either. Reuters reports that under the provisions of the Lateran Pacts of 1929 — the treaty between the Holy See and Mussolini’s Italy that recognized Vatican City as a sovereign state — Benedict will be immune from prosecution even if he travels across the international border into Italy as a Vatican citizen.