Pope Benedict, accused by victims' lawyers of being ultimately responsible for a cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests, cannot be called to testify at any trial because he has immunity as a head of state, a top Vatican legal official said on Thursday.
The interview with Giuseppe dalla Torre, head of the Vatican's tribunal, was published in Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper as Pope Benedict began Holy Thursday services in St Peter's Basilica and Catholics marked the most solemn week of the liturgical calendar, culminating on Sunday in Easter Day.
The pope did not refer in his sermon to the crisis of confidence sweeping the Church as almost daily revelations surface of sexual abuse of children in the past, accompanied by allegations of a cover-up.
Dalla Torre outlined the Vatican's strategy to defend the pope from being forced to testify in several lawsuits concerning sexual abuse which are currently moving through the U.S. legal system.
"The pope is certainly a head of state, who has the same juridical status as all heads of state," he said, arguing he therefore had immunity from foreign courts.
Lawyers representing victims of sexual abuse by priests in several cases in the United States have said they would want the pope to testify in an attempt to try to prove the Vatican was negligent.
But the pope is protected by diplomatic immunity because more than 170 countries, including the United States, have diplomatic relations with the Vatican. They recognize it as a sovereign state and the pope as its sovereign head.
Dalla Torre rejected suggestions that U.S. bishops, some of whom have been accused of moving molesters from parish to parish instead of turning them in to police, could be considered Vatican employees, making their "boss" ultimately responsible.
'Church not a multi-national corporation'
"The Church is not a multi-national corporation," dalla Torre said. "He has (spiritual) primacy over the Church ... but every bishop is legally responsible for running a diocese."
Dalla Torre also rejected suggestions by some U.S. lawyers and critics of the Church that Vatican documents in 1962 and 2001 encouraged local bishops not to report sexual abuse cases.
He re-stated the Vatican's position that the documents, one of which called for procedures to remain secret, did not suggest to bishops that they should not report cases to authorities.
"Secrecy served above all to protect the victim and also the accused, who could turn out to be innocent, and it regarded only the canonical (church) trial and did not substitute the penal process," he said.
"There is nothing that prohibited anyone (in the Church) from giving information to civil authorities."
As the scandal has swept across Europe, bishops trying to contain damage have held special meetings with shaken Catholics.
On Wednesday night in Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn told an emotional gathering the Catholic Church as a whole must accept its guilt and its collective responsibility for sexual abuse committed by its members.
Vatican takes off the gloves
The Vatican has taken off the gloves in its response to media reports alleging the pope mishandled a series of abuse cases before he was elected.
It launched a frontal attack on the New York Times on Wednesday night by posting a long statement on its Web Site by Cardinal William J. Levada, who succeeded the pope as head of the Vatican's doctrinal department.
Levada asked the newspaper "to reconsider its attack mode about Pope Benedict XVI and give the world a more balanced view of a leader it can and should count on".
The Vatican has denied any cover-up over the abuse of 200 deaf boys in the United States by Reverend Lawrence Murphy from 1950 to 1974. The New York Times reported the Vatican and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, were warned about Murphy but he was not defrocked.
The Times said its reports were "based on meticulous reporting and documents."