British author and atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins has backed a measure which could see Pope Benedict arrested to face questions over the Catholic church's child abuse scandal, when he visits Britain later this year.
Dawkins, a scientist and outspoken critic of religion, has backed a move to ask human rights lawyers to examine whether charges could be brought against the pope.
The four-day trip, from September 16 to 19, will be the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II's pastoral visit in 1982 and is the first official papal visit to Britain.
The Catholic church has rejected claims the pope helped to cover up abuse by priests and the Vatican has accused the media of waging a "despicable campaign of defamation" against him.
Dawkins is supporting English journalist Christopher Hitchens, who has commissioned lawyers Geoffrey Robertson and Mark Stephens to explore ways of taking legal action against the pope.
On his website Dawkins stressed that he "did NOT say 'I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI' or anything so personally grandiloquent," but that he did support Hitchen's initiative to mount a legal challenge to the Pope's proposed visit to Britain.
"I am especially intrigued by the proposed challenge to the legality of the Vatican as a sovereign state whose head can claim diplomatic immunity," he said on his site.
"Even if the Pope doesn't end up int he dock, and even if the Vatican doesn't cancel the visit, I am optimistic that we shall raise public consciousness to the point where the British government will find it very awkward indeed to go ahead with the Pope's visit, let alone pay for it."
Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene, told the Sunday Times newspaper that he suspected child abuse by church members had been covered up.
Hitchens, who published a book in 2007 called God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion, said: "This man is not above or outside the law. The institutionalised concealment of child abuse is a crime under any law."
Critics have accused Benedict of negligence in handling abuse cases in previous roles as a cardinal in his native Germany, and in Rome.
The Vatican has denied any cover-up over the abuse of 200 deaf boys in the United States. The pope has not commented directly on the wave of sexual abuse allegations that has shaken the church around the world, including the United States, Ireland, Italy and Germany.
- with Reuters