Richard Dawkins to Arrest Pope*

Rumor has it that Richard Dawkins, along with Christopher Hitchens, plan to use the same legal gambit that allowed the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, to arrest Pope Benedict XVI for his alleged involvement in the cover-up of Catholic priest sexual abuse cases.

Do you think Dawkins has gone to far?

If you do, please reconsider.

If instead of the Pope, we were talking about a syphilitic African dictator who had, according to various vague news stories you may have heard over the years, supervised the rape and killing of untold people you never heard of before. You’d probably be rather ho-hum about this. Suppose it was a scary looking bushy-faced multisyllabic Eastern European that the Western Press had linked, on the evening news where all important legal decisions are made in the US, with really bad stuff that had something to do with mass graves or something-or-another. You’d probably figure, “Oh, good, they got that guyovitch. I guess you can’t really be a bad guy for the rest of your life according to Katie Kouric and get away with it.”

But when you hear about t he Pope being arrested for a cover up, the first thing you think might be rather different. It might be either a) You can’t arrest the pope because he’s clearly uninvolved in the details, and he’s the head of a religion, and doesn’t really order these things directly and so on and so forth; and/or b) This Dawkins Character is taking this too far! Sure, the Pope has not acted correctly here, but Dawkins and Hitchens are just going to get Atheism in trouble and cause more problems than any gain from such hard line tactics could possibly achieve and they should really just sit down and shut up! THIS is what gives the so called New Atheists a bad name?

And if these thoughts occurred to you, especially the second one, I ask you: Why the double standard? Why, as a relatively uninformed individual, are you willing in your own mind to assume the guilt of Ubudumbu Kuku Kibombi of Bungabungaland, or to mentally convict Slobbychin Katchthebusovitch of Moroonionia, on the grounds of the facial expression the nightly news caster uses when mentioning them, but to assume the Pope’s innocence no matter what? Why are you willing to consider any means, or really, to not even know about the method, of the arrest of run of the mill leaders of countries of run of the mill places you know nothing about, while jumping out of your skin in outrage over New Atheists Ruinzing it for Everyonez!!!11!! just because this time the bad guy is the head of the Catholic Religion?

OK, so maybe you didn’t exactly jump out of your skin, but you did get a little hot under the collar, didn’t you? You think “Yeah, the Pope is a dope … he probably did something wrong and in an ideal world, maybe he should even go to jail.” … But you cringed when you heard about Dawkins’ plan because … once again ” … don’t these New Atheists know when to stop….?”

If those were your thoughts, what you’d be missing is the part about how the other bad guys got arrested. There were hard line, hard nosed, hard asses in prosecutorial and other legal bodies working for years, with huge staffs, amassing evidence, playing the legal game, with the intention all along, from day one to day N, of arresting the bad guy, somehow, some way, no matter what it took.

But with the Pope, there is nothing. No agency of any government or of the UN can buck the fabric of our society which says, no matter what your religion or lack thereof may be, that religion is special. Not only can you not arrest a religious leader, but you can’t expect a religious organization to follow the rules that all other organizations follow.

What is even more important is this: If you take an alternate stand, that the Pope is at best just another head of state (but not really, because the Vatican is not universally recognized as a country), that a religious organization has the same legal and social responsibilities as any other organization, and that when crimes area committed by individuals who happen to be members of a church … and this is important … those crimes were not committed by a church member … they were committed by a citizen of some country or another, by a person who happens to be a member of a church, and therefore by a person subject to the same law every other person is subuect to … if you take that stand, then YOU are considered the person doing something wrong. Not the perp. You.

So, if you were thinking that Dawkins is going over the top to use his position and money to step in where the Crown or some other government has failed, then you are actually getting it all quite backwards. There is a very small step from what you were thinking to blaming the victims. And unfortunately, there is a long line of people either blaming the victims or failing to stand with them. Get in line.

Or, you could get in line in a different sense. Recognize that although the Catholic Church is certainly special in many ways (it’s rich, strange, big, and powerful) it and its employees are no different than you or me or anyone else. Not special.

The problem is not that Dawkins has gone too far. The problem is that you have not gone far enough.

* Well, not really, but he should, dammit!


  1. #1 Deen
    April 11, 2010

    Well, considering that Richard Dawkins isn’t actually the person planning this at all, no, I don’t think he’s going too far.

    Of course, he still supports the initiative, and I think he’s right to do so.

  2. #2 Anonymous
    April 11, 2010

    “The problem is not that Dawkins has gone too far. The problem is that you have not gone far enough.”

    Indeed. And thank you.

    I am enjoying this article very much right now – I would like to see more like it:
    “Dear Catholic Church: Excommunicate Me” The Stranger, Seattle

  3. #3 Uninformed
    April 11, 2010

    Man, that guy you made up is real dumb. Good thing we’re not that… imaginary guy.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2010

    OK, so, according to Actual Facts, Dawkins does not plan to arrest the Pope. But, he would if he could!!!!!

  5. #5 dean
    April 11, 2010

    On a related humorous note: someone painted two “pedobear” pictures on a billboard advertising a papal visit to malta

    even funnier: the tag to the story in this link calls the pictures “pandas” and says ” It is not clear why the “artist” in question juxtaposed the bears with the Pope”.

  6. #6 NewEnglandBob
    April 11, 2010

    The RCC is definitely special. They are especially evil due to their only concern being their image and not caring about the victims of reprehensible crimes.

    They are special enough to be singled out and cleaned up. Prosecution for all involved in the crimes and prosecution for those covering up the crimes.

  7. #7 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 11, 2010

    This isn’t a problem with Dawkins and the Pope per se. The general problem is that allowing people to arrest visiting heads of state is just a really bad idea in general, no matter how likely they are to be guilty or innocent. As a simple policy matter, doing this in general isn’t a good thing whether it is Pope Benedict, Tzipi Livni, Augusto Pinochet, Dick Cheney, Yasser Arafat, Ubudumbu Kuku Kibombi of Bungabungaland, or Slobbychin Katchthebusovitch of Moroonionia.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2010

    He’s not a head of state.

  9. #9 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 11, 2010

    Greg, he’s only not a head of state in the very narrow sense that he’s not the head of a state as recognized by the UN. The essential pragmatic considerations remain identical.

  10. #10 Anonymous
    April 11, 2010


    Who knew a chan construct would go on to provoke comments such as this one (via Kotaku)

    “Awesome to the Pedobear images on the Pope’s billboard. Personally I think it’s a great way to make a statement. Martin Luther would be proud.”

  11. #11 SQB
    April 11, 2010

    Too far? Not far enough. Though I really think Dawkins shouldn’t have to be the one to do it, there should be a red notice out for the pope, for his involvement in and leading of an international paedophile ring.

    But in the end, he’s probably head-of-statey enough to be granted immunity during his visit to England.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2010

    Does the Vatican have an embassy in the UK? And visa versa? If not, he’s not a head of state in the UK. If so, he is. Yes?

  13. #13 csrster
    April 11, 2010

    Peter Tatchell is your man for this sort of thing.

  14. #14 Phillip IV
    April 11, 2010

    The general problem is that allowing people to arrest visiting heads of state is just a really bad idea in general

    When crimes against humanity are concerned, it’s both legally possible as well as a good idea – and there are, in fact, currently several heads of state who cannot travel freely due to arrest warrants or the risk of being arrested. Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir being a recent and highly deserving example.

    Arguing that Ratzinger is guilty of crimes against humanity (which is the core of the plan that Dawkins is backing here) is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch – though, technically, his actions might qualify. And there isn’t really much of a chance that he’ll travel to Britain an be arrested – but there’s just a chance that raising the issue of a possible arrest will put the British government in such a difficult position that the visit will be canceled, which in itself would already be a triumph.

  15. #15 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 11, 2010

    Greg, that’s not a great definition either. You are again using a technical aspect of formal recognition rather than a simple de facto standard. Indeed, the article even acknowledges this:

    The article says:
    Dawkins and Hitchens believe the Pope would be unable to claim diplomatic immunity from arrest because, although his tour is categorised as a state visit, he is not the head of a state recognised by the United Nations.

  16. #16 Anonymous
    April 11, 2010

    It would be wonderful for everyone all-round if Ratty cancelled his Sept trip to the UK. Many people are unhappy that their government is shelling out 20 million pounds for the visit.

  17. #17 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 11, 2010

    Greg, also the UK does in fact have an embassy in the Vatican. See . So even by your test this is a state.

    I find Phillip’s argument above to be stronger and may have convinced me. However, that almost bothers me as much. Using nebulous threats of arrest to get a a visit canceled almost sounds like censorship.

  18. #18 dean
    April 11, 2010

    I agree with Greg – the pope is not a head of state and that’s not his job. he is a religious “leader”, pure and simple.

    but – the “head of state” stuff is maintained because (possibly only in my opinion) to make his many visits and meetings with true heads of state easier to sell, both for the public and financially. “No, of course we don’t take these precautions for religious figures, but the pope is more than that – he’s the ruler of a country”.

  19. #19 WMDKitty
    April 11, 2010

    IMO, Dawkins hasn’t gone far enough. Anyone who even has one iota of compassion or concern for the victims of the Catholic Pedophilia Ring ought to be calling for the Pope’s head.

    I would fully support a motion to slaughter everyone in Vatican City, and redistribute their wealth to the victims and their families. Disband the “Church”. Declare “Catholicism” and membership in the “Catholic Church” a crime, in that by associating with this organization, you are implicitly SUPPORTING pedophilia.

  20. #20 Alistair Wall
    April 11, 2010

    IANAL, but in the UK, a citizen can only arrest someone if they have personally witnessed them committing an arrestable offence. Otherwise, it needs a magistrate to issue an arrest warrant.

  21. #21 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 11, 2010

    WMDKitty, if we’re talking about what Benedict and his compatriots deserve then he should probably have a red-hot poker shoved up his ass for a few thousand years.

  22. #22 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2010

    Joshua, I think if you want British authorities to carry out an act that they think is legal, then the legal definition, not a “de facto” definition, is what matters. I would think the embassy thing would serve in that case.

    (Funny: I’m sometimes accused by my detractors of being obnoxious because I’ll claim knowledge of something because I had a student who worked on that problem. It turns out that I had a student doing a PhD on International Law. But, I don’t actually make the claim that I know something just because a student worked on it. I have to have had to also worked on it, with the impetus being that the student was working on it. In this case, when it comes to international law, I learned NOTHING from that experience. I only point this out for future reference.)

  23. #23 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2010

    OK, so there is an embassy, which, if it is a real embassy, makes him a head of state in Britain.

    However, de facto, he is NOT a head of state. He’s a religious leader (as Dean says). The Italians only let the Vatican act like a different country because it is convenient for them.

  24. #24 Erp
    April 11, 2010

    I should point out the rules on not arresting heads of state and diplomats is to allow diplomacy to work. It wouldn’t do for a head of state of country A to visit country B and country B’s rulers to decide to arrest him whether for a real crime or to put pressure on country A (I don’t like it that you won’t agree to the border I want between our countries, the color of your tie is of a banned color, you are under arrest). The usual rule for a diplomat or head of state who has done something illegal is either not to allow them to enter the country in the first place or to expel them (the one exception might be that the US has treaty obligations to allow heads of state and others to come to talk to the UN). The diplomat’s home country is free to charge and try them for the crime (or to waive diplomatic immunity and return the diplomat to country B for trial).

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2010

    Ha. I just read through Joshua’s wikipedia link. Yes, there seems to be an official relationship. There has NEVER been a state visit by the head of the Vatican State to the UK, and the UK’s “embassy” is a desk in the Italian embassy.

  26. #26 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 11, 2010

    Greg, it isn’t uncommon when one has relations with a small country for some countries to only have desks or small officies in another country’s embassy. The point was that if the standard is “is there an embassy?” then the answer is yes.

  27. #27 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2010

    Joshua, do you happen to know if the Pope has ever visited England? If I’m reading this correctly, there has never been a “state visit” … does that mean he’s never gone there, or does it mean he’s not really the head of state? I can’t believe he’s never been.

  28. #28 Nemo
    April 11, 2010

    While I doubt that this pope will ever face justice, it’s been thrilling lately to see him widely held in open contempt. I’ve never seen anything like it. The church is losing its grip.

  29. #29 Armand
    April 11, 2010

    It would be funny if the Pope thought it a good idea to arrest the Atheist Richard Dawkins. They could then try to arrest each other.

  30. #30 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 11, 2010

    Greg, it means he hasn’t visited in his capacity as a head of state. I’m not sure I completely understand the distinction, but it apparently matters for both some British and International Law issues how the visit is classified (including for example the exact level of diplomatic immunity and how much government protection the individual gets). There are occasions when heads of state enter a country but are not visiting as heads of state.

    For example, this has happened with some Israeli prime ministers who have come to the US to visit family here. On those visits, they were not visiting as heads of state.

    Also, sometimes a country will send their leader somewhere officially but not have it be a visit by a head of state to make a diplomatic snub. Similarly, a a country might accept a leader’s visit but not a visit as a head of state. (I don’t fully understand the details. It seems as with many forms of diplomatic issues one that is utterly symbolic) But not having had someone visit as a head of state doesn’t mean the country isn’t recognized. I don’t have enough background knowledge to discuss this in any detail beyond that point.

  31. #31 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2010

    No, having a head of state not visit as head of state does not mean they are not head of state. But, it often means something. I suspect there is a traditional discomfort in England when it comes to the papal kahoona. These days. (Meaning the last few centuries)

  32. #32 Childermass
    April 11, 2010

    Since when has whether or not there has been a state visit been a requirement for being a state? Also membership in the United Nations is not and has never been a requirement either. That a state exists only the sufferance of another state does not matter after all most of the nations on Earth exist at the whim of the great powers. And as Joshua points out, the size of the embassy is irrelevant.

    That the Vatican is a state is established by treaty with various nations most importantly Italy, by its being a State for over a thousand years, and by having diplomatic relations as a state with a good chunk of the nations on Earth.

    It might be asinine, but what me and you think is asinine is completely irrelevant. The simple fact is that Vatican City is a state: a small theocracy with its own “ayatollah.” And as such the Pope has full diplomatic immunity. Even if Britain was to drop its diplomatic relations with the Holy See I doubt would arrest a head of state recognized by so many others unless their was formal hostilities. The most they would do would simply not let him in.

    And even we we could have him arrested, it doubt it would be wise to do so. The Catholic Church is doing a fine job hurting itself at the moment and giving it an opportunity to cry persecution would probably help it. The best course of action would be making sure people know what the church has done, using the civil suits against the appropriate Catholic organizations to make sure they pay for what they have done, and to press criminal charges against any priest, nun, etc. that has assaulted a child. In the mean time, give the pope all the metaphorical rope he needs to hang himself and damage that institution while he is at it.

  33. #33 Anonymous
    April 11, 2010

    “The problem is not that Dawkins has gone too far. The problem is that you have not gone far enough.”

    Ok I’ll bite. Do you have any suggestions? Personally I’m on the verge of severing a five year friendship with a work superior who is an active RC. I can’t sever the work relationship, but I can ‘stop being friends’. It will make work extremely uncomfortable, perhaps intolerable. I don’t do that to try to affect her, but because it bothers me that she is blind to the sins of an organization that she supports so wholeheartedly. And I don’t just mean the current pedophile mess. That whole ‘AIDS is bad but condoms are worse’ thing is also a show stopper for me. I’m a hell of a lot more preachy than she is, but I guess I’m losing that “live and let live” thing.

  34. #34 peter
    April 11, 2010

    Excellent idea.

    Lets consider Ratz being the head of a state for a moment.
    In this case I would advocate involvement of the Hague to prosecute crimes against humanity, due to the fact that the Unholy Sea refused to notify the secular authorities and the judiciary to deal with severe abuse, but hid behind the wall of their religious power.
    Justice was denied for the victims and to the perpetrators through the power of the pope and his advisers.

  35. #35 Childermass
    April 11, 2010

    I might add that the rules involving diplomatic relations, etc. have as much to do with not being asinine, as much to do with fairness, and as much to do with justice as Answers in Genesis has to do with reality.

    They are a necessity in a world where there really are areas legally independent of each other when combined with the desire not to killing each other 24/7 for the rest of eternity.

    The pope will be coming with papers saying he is a head of state. I suspect that just letting him in would be accepting those papers. Any international lawyer types around? I certainly don’t see any way around that if the pope comes with a passport issued by Vatican City. Does he?
    And unlike Augusto Pinochet, the pope is very likely to still be head honcho when he visits. Pinochet was no longer part of the government of Argentina and hence did not qualify for diplomatic immunity.

  36. #36 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2010

    Whatever. I figure, if they can get Polanski, they can get that rat Ratzinger.

  37. #38 Gruesome Rob
    April 11, 2010

    And as such the Pope has full diplomatic immunity.

    That doesn’t go as far as you think it does. If the issues are classified as crimes against humanity, he doesn’t have that immunity.
    Institutional rape appears to fall under that, so he could very well be arrested.

  38. #39 Michael
    April 12, 2010

    Is there too a big gap between the pope’s words on child abuse and Jesus’ words’?


    In the Pope’s Pastoral letter to the people of Ireland he said he was “deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children” . The Pope proposed “some concrete initiatives to address the situation”. His two main initiatives were “intense prayer” and “Apostolic visitations”:


    Interestingly, Jesus did not avoid the subject but embraced it and in no uncertain terms. He addressed his disciples in one of his most poignant lessons as recounted first by Matthew (Ch 18) and then corroborated both by Mark and Luke:

    “Listen! I’m telling you disciples the truth now. Unless you change and become like little kids, YOU won’t ever be getting into the kingdom of Heaven.

    Therefore, whoever makes himself as little as this little kid, he’s the one who is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. And anyone who welcomes one little kid like this one, in my name, also welcomes me”.


    Well, here we see Jesus at his most passionate and he’s using the strongest possible language in this teaching …

    “But if anyone is the downfall of one of these little kids who believes in me, it were better for him that he drowned in the deep of the sea with a great millstone tied round his neck.”


    Not afraid to face the issue with realism and wisdom, Jesus talks about the problem of child abuse in the world …

    “It’s a great pity for the world that there should be such causes of kids falling. Causes of falling indeed there must be, but pity help anyone who provides them!”


    Here Jesus talks directly to any adult who may be involved in the abuse of a small child or children …

    “If your hand or your foot should be your downfall, cut it off and throw it away: it is better for you to enter into life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.”


    “And if your eye should be your downfall, tear it out and throw it away: it is better for you to enter into life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into the hell of fire.”


    “See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in Heaven.”

  39. #40 Isabel
    April 12, 2010

    “Declare “Catholicism” and membership in the “Catholic Church” a crime, in that by associating with this organization, you are implicitly SUPPORTING pedophilia.”

    Same if you join or support competitive swimming. It should be declared a crime as well. Plenty of reprehensible cover-ups there as well.

    Same for Scouting.

    Or being a Hasidic Jew.

    How were the complaints handled? Same depressing story.

  40. #41 Isabel
    April 12, 2010

    Here’s a depressing list.

    Also, I’m thinking we should ban families, because participating in family life supports the most child abuse and child abuse cover-ups of all.

  41. #42 Douglas Watts
    April 13, 2010

    What’s real unfortunate, Greg, is you could use this real estate to do some actual reporting and research and present it as a professional journalist, instead of acting like a 14 year old kid playing on a computer while his parents are cooking his meal. Step your game up. You are an embarrassment to science journalists.

  42. #43 Greg Laden
    April 13, 2010

    Douglas, you have made a outrageous error. I am not a journalist. Nor to I pretend to be in any way. As a matter of fact, I have stated repeatedly that I am not a journalist.

    I am a blogger.

    Hey, I’ll tell you what. Next time I want to write a blog post, I’ll email a draft to you and you can let me know if it’s OK. K?

  43. #44 Irishman
    April 17, 2010

    That’s awesome, but on the other hand, a pope shouldn’t have privilage, if after all he is found guilty.

  44. #45 Jr
    April 19, 2010

    I think Dawkins is going to far because there is no case that the pope has committed crimes against humanity.

    Yes systematic rape could qualify as a crime against humanity under some circumstances. (Not all. If committing serious crimes on a large scale always were a crime against humanity the ICC would have jurisdiction in Mafia cases which clearly was not the intent.)

    However Ratzinger has no in way instituted a policy of systematic rape. In fact the opposite is true. He has clearly as a theologian that sexual abuse is a sin and his actions as leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith show that he regarded it as a ground for ground for sending priests to therapy, stop them from working with children and firing them in some cases.

    What Dawkins at most could hope to prove is that Ratzinger was involved in a systematic policy of not reporting the crimes to the authorities after the fact and being negligent in preventing them from occurring. And neither is close to being a crime against humanity.

    So I think Dawkins really is embarrassing himself on this issue. His poor legal analysis makes it seem that he is driven more by hatred of the catholic church and the pope than anything else.

  45. #46 Duncan
    April 22, 2010

    “The RCC is definitely special. They are especially evil due to their only concern being their image and not caring about the victims of reprehensible crimes.” Wow. That sounds exactly like the United States of America. Probably Britain too. Maybe Dawkins will also join initiatives to seize Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, George Bush, and Barack Obama?

  46. #47 bob
    September 17, 2010

    The pope is a head of an organisation founded by fascism, unrecognised in english law. In the Uk he is just another person, whom has acted to pervert (excuse the pun) course of justice.
    Where´s Henry the 8th when you need him?

  47. #48 alman
    January 11, 2011

    Some more interesting articles and news about world’s most famous atheist Richard Dawkins can be found at Best regards.