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Geoffrey Robertson's case against recognising the Holy See as a state falls with an elementary error of fact
Geoffrey Robertson QC will seek tonight to persuade a lecture audience at the LSE that the Vatican isn't deserving of diplomatic recognition, that its claims to statehood are risible, and that – which is why this matters –it uses its status as a state to take refuge from international law and to cover up clerical sex abuse crimes.
After a good old chortle at the 1929 Lateran Pact, which the Church signed with Mussolini – a sordid business, as negotiations with dictators often are, but not an insignificant thing to do when you're carving out space under a totalitarian regime – Robertson will tell us that the "state" is just a basilica with a garden attached (ho, ho). And he will claim, as he does in the New Statesman, that the UK only recognises the Vatican in international law because of that 1929 pact.
If this were true, it would be rather an interesting and challenging point. Why recognise a state on the basis of a sordid little treaty to which the UK was not even a party?
But it's not true. As clearly stated on the Foreign Office website, diplomatic relations are not with the Vatican state but with the Holy See, the seat of governance of the Catholic Church worldwide. The Holy See, says the FCO, "acts and speaks for the whole Catholic Church. It is also recognised by other subjects of international law as a sovereign juridical entity under international law, headed by the Pope, with which diplomatic relations can be maintained."
And indeed are: close to 200 states, in fact, have diplomatic ties with the Holy See, which is a sovereign entity, the oldest in history, whose existence long predates the creation of nation-states. The UK first established relations with it in 1479, making this the UK's oldest diplomatic relationship (the first ambassador to the Holy See was John Shirwood, appointed by King Edward IV). True, after 1599 there was a hiatus of 450 years "“ although there were strong informal ties in the nineteenth century "“ until diplomatic ties were restored in 1914. But that was 15 years before the Lateran Pact.
Robertson claims in the New Statesman that the FCO told him that the UK recognises the Vatican as a state "in reliance on the Lateran Treaty of 1929". But the FCO says otherwise. "Contrary to some assertions, the Lateran Treaty in 1929 was not essential to allow the diplomatic recognition of the Holy See", a spokesman tells me.
There are many other things Robertson will seek to conceal tonight. He will not mention how crucial a partner the Holy See is to the international community, as the second largest international development body after the UN; as one of the globe's biggest health providers; as a campaigner for the rights of the poor in G8 and G20 summits; and as one of the brokers of the Treaty on Cluster Munitions in 2008 among many other peace initiatives. He will not tell us how the Holy See's global network the Catholic Church is the world's largest civil-society actor "“ tackling climate change, promoting health and education for the poorest. Nor will he disclose that the Holy See's diplomatic network assists the UK in countless discreet ways "“ in freeing hostages, for example; or in conflict negotiations.
What, instead, the LSE audience will hear is how the Vatican uses its dubious statehood to protect paedophile priests from the law. They will hear, for example, that instead of reporting clerical abusers to the police, the Vatican deals with them "under canon law", which demands "utmost 'pontifical' secrecy", "moving them to parishes and other countries and letting them off with admonitions and unenforceable 'penances'".
Yet canon law and statehood are not related. The Church of England has its own law. So does the Bar Council. All large organisations, especially global ones, have their own internal legal system. There is no conflict with civil law, which canon law itself directs the local Church to obey. The Church's legal entity in the countries where it is present is the diocese, headed by a bishop; like any other citizen, the bishop must obey the law of the land.
The clerical sex abuse leadership crisis is not the result of bishops resorting to canon instead of civil law; it is the result of ignoring both, preferring therapeutic methods. The shuffling between parishes charge can be laid at a local bishop, but not at the Vatican, which has no parishes, and has no say in where a bishop sends a priest. The failures are ones of local episcopal leadership, not "the Vatican", whose involvement only enters the picture when it comes to the laicisation of abusive priests, a process that follows on from civil penalties, and which has nothing to do with protecting young people. It is the local bishop's removal of the priest from active ministry which is the crucial action in these cases. Laicisation of abusive priests used to take too long; now, as result of this Pope's reforms, it is much speedier.
But you would imagine from Robertson's portrayal that the Vatican is using its statehood to shelter clerical paedophiles wanted by the law of different countries. Again, that would be shocking, if true. But of course it is not. And Robertson will, of course, tonight fail to produce a single example. But on the bright side, there is sure to be plenty of laughs.