An international group for victims of sexual abuse by priests said today they were suing Pope Benedict XVI through the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said it had filed a complaint calling on the court to "take action and prosecute the Pope" for "direct and superior responsibility for the crimes against humanity of rape and other sexual violence committed around the world."

In a statement, SNAP said members from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and the US had travelled to The Hague to urge prosecutors to investigate the Pope.

They also asked for three high-ranking Vatican officials -- Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, his predecessor Angelo Sodano and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, US William Levada -- to be investigated.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi refused to comment.

The SNAP members were accompanied by lawyers from the non-profit US Centre for Constitutional Rights.

The US-based victims network submitted more than 20,000 pages of supporting materials including "reports, policy papers, and evidence of the crimes by Catholic clergy committed against children and vulnerable adults," it said.

"Crimes against tens of thousands of victims, most of them children, are being covered up by officials at the highest level of the Vatican. In this case, all roads really do lead to Rome," the centre's lawyer Pam Spees said in the statement.

"The Vatican officials charged in this case are responsible for rape and other sexual violence and for the physical and psychological torture of victims around the world both through command responsibility and through direct cover up of crimes," she added.

"They should be brought to trial like any other officials guilty of crimes against humanity."

SNAP President Barbara Blaine said: "We as victims are mobilising across the globe, and every survivor is invited to join us."

The association said it was "embarking on a 12-city tour throughout Europe to demand local diocese turn over relevant documents and encourage other victims of sexual abuse by clergy to come forward and provide additional evidence to add to the complaint."

In addition to The Hague, SNAP members will visit Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, London, Dublin, Warsaw and Madrid before returning to Rome to "bring the case to the Vatican's door."

The Roman Catholic Church is struggling to deal with rising anger and a string of lawsuits following thousands of child abuse claims in Europe and the United States.

Pope Benedict has expressed shame and sorrow over the clerical sex scandal and has called on bishops around the world to come up with common guidelines against paedophiles by May 2012.

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