Over here in Britain, we suffer from a particularly enthusiastic kind of professional secularist, who loves nothing more than to mount elaborate arguments on the basis of the thinnest premises. It must be something to do with our climate, whose low grey skies encourage a certain kind of anorak to spend hours burrowing in libraries. "Anorak", now I think of it, is a very British word, for which there may be (you can be thankful) no American translation.
Geoffrey Robertson QC is not, exactly, an anorak. He is a famous barrister, as court advocates are known in Britain. He has a certain swashbuckling fame earned in high-profile human rights cases brought in international fora against tyrants. But in an extraordinary cover article for the New Statesman  magazine, he has put himself firmly in the anorak league in an attempt to argue that the Catholic Church's claims to statehood are bogus, yet exploited by the Vatican to cover up -- you guessed it -- crimes of clerical sex abuse by resort to "obsolescent" canon law.
Mostly this is predictable guff - and easily demolished. But Robertson, who is giving a lecture Wednesday evening at the London School of Economics (LSE) to promote his new book , has made a serious error in his article -- an error, what is more, central to the the argument of his article; and as a result his whole case appears to crumble.
After pooh-poohing the Vatican as a serious state ("simply a palace with a large basilica and ample gardens"), he asks: "So why does Britain recognise the Vatican as a state when it obviously is not?". He then claims to have asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) this question under the Freedom of Information Act, "and have been told by the Foreign Office that it does so in reliance on the Lateran Treaty of 1929."
Now this is very odd, because the FCO's own website makes very clear  that it is the Holy See, seat of governance of the worldwide Catholic Church, with which the UK, and other countries, have a diplomatic relationship, not the Vatican City state. The UK's diplomatic relationship with the Holy See dates back to 1479, although there was a long period (1599-1914) when relations were broken off. The year they were restored, at the beginning of the First World War, predates by many years the Lateran Pacts.
Here's what the FCO says (my emphasis):
The Holy See (Sancta Sedes in Latin) is the Episcopal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, in which its Bishop is commonly known as the Pope. It is the pre-eminent Episcopal see of the Catholic Church, forming the central government of the Church. As such, diplomatically, and in other spheres, the Holy See 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. The Holy See (the central government of the Catholic Church) is made up of the Pope and the Departments that assist him in carrying out his responsibilities towards the universal Church (identified as the Apostolic See or Holy See).
So why has the FCO told Geoffrey Robertson that it recognised the Vatican as a state on the basis of the Lateran Pacts?
Answer: it hasn't.
A phone call this afternoon to the FCO press office reveals that the FCO has no record of telling Robertson this, that that answer was not among those he was given in response to his FoI requests, and that had anyone done so, they would have been quite wrong, because the stated position of the British Government is above: the UK has diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
[Update. The FCO has given me the following statement, "attributable to an FCO spokesman":
"Contrary to some assertions, the Lateran Treaty in 1929 was not essential to allow the diplomatic recognition of the Holy See. The UK first established diplomatic bilateral relations with the Holy See in 1479. Relations were ruptured in 1559 but were restored in 1914, 15 years prior to that treaty".]
Yet Robertson keeps returning in his article to this idea of "reliance on the Lateran Pact", making the UK out to be "a pushover, conceding a claim by Vatican diplomats that is not only wrong in law but based on a treaty to which the UK is not a party". But the whole argument is a smoking stack of cards, because Vatican diplomats make no such claim.
One wonders if Robertson has made a genuine mistake or whether he thought this point would appear so abstruse that he could smuggle it before a grateful audience unnoticed. And one wonders if he will peddle the same untruth at his Wednesday lecture. And whether Penguin will issue an erratum when his book goes on sale.
The rest of the article, incidentally, is just hokum from beginning to end. Here's a sample:
"As part of its 'sovereignty', the Vatican claims the right, in all states where its Church operates, to deal with its priests and other religious under canon law."
But canon law is not contingent on recognition of its sovereignty. The Church of England, for example. has its own church law. And church law does not replace or override civil law; it is a parallel, complementary jurisdiction, not an alternative.
"While there can be no objection to an organisation disciplining members for a breach of arcane rules, there is every objection when those breaches amount to serious crimes and the organisation claims the right to deal with them internally without reporting them to the police. And that is precisely what the Vatican has been doing: instead of reporting to the law-enforcement authorities those priests whom it knows to be guilty if raping children ... it has been dealing with them under canon law, which demands utmost pontifical 'secrecy', moving them off to other parishes and other countries and letting them off with admonitions."
Where to begin? (a) the Vatican does not deal with abusive priests, local dioceses or congregations do; (b) Where these have failed to act against abusive priests, it has not been because they have resorted to canon law instead of civil law, but because they failed to resort to either canon OR civil law; (c) the cases which have been referred to the Vatican (since 2001) have been referred precisely in order to ensure appropriate action IS taken; (d) confidentiality is imposed in canonical legal processes in those cases where -- as in solicitation in the confessional -- these are canonical crimes, not civil ones; (e) the canonical process (eg laicisation) only takes place after any civil action (prosecution, trial, sentencing) has taken place; (f) it wasn't the Vatican which back in the 1980s moved priests accused of abuse to other parishes, it was bishops. And so on.
If only Pope Benedict were an ordinary citizen, he could rightly sue Robertson for his wholly untrue and grossly defamatory claim that clerical abuse was allowed to take place because "Joseph Ratzinger, both as head of the CDF and as Pope, has insisted for the past 30 years that all such cases be dealt with in secrecy under canon law." That is a monstrous lie -- and, given Cardinal Ratzingers record in this area, simply laughable.
The assumption, further on, that Pope Benedict in July should have issued instructions to his bishops "to report confirmed or resonably suspected cases of child rape to the police" is mind-bogglingly naive. Canon law instructs the Church to obey the local civil law in any case. In some countries child abuse is not even a crime. Even in some countries where it is, reporting allegations to the police would amount to brushing the accusations under the carpet.
Astonishing, is it not, that an international jurist would overlook these points?
But it's brought one thing home to me. If Robertson were my barrister, I would settle out of court -- at any price.