Human rights lawyers and victims of clergy sexual abuse filed a complaint on Tuesday urging the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate and prosecute Pope Benedict XVI and three top Vatican officials for crimes against humanity for what they described as abetting and covering up the rape and sexual assault of children by priests.

The formal filing of nearly 80 pages by two American advocacy groups, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the most substantive effort yet to hold the pope and the Vatican accountable in an international court for sexual abuse by priests.

“The high-level officials of the Catholic church who failed to prevent and punish these criminal actions,” the complaint says, “have, to date, enjoyed absolute impunity.”

A spokeswoman at the court said that the prosecutor’s office would examine the papers, “as we do with all such communications.” The first step will be “to analyze whether the alleged crimes fall under the court’s jurisdiction,” Florence Olara, the prosecutor’s spokeswoman said.

Complaints about the Vatican and child abuse by Catholic priests have been received at the court before, court records showed. But Ms. Olara said that details are not normally disclosed by the court unless a case goes forward.

Lawyers familiar with the I.C.C. said that it was unlikely that complaint against the Vatican would fit the court’s mandate to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But even an examination of the issue by the prosecution office would appear to serve the plaintiffs’ goal of getting international attention for the case.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the spokesman for the Vatican, said he had no comment.

Vatican officials have often said that the decisions about priests accused of abuse are made by bishops — not by the Vatican hierarchy — and that the church is far more decentralized than is widely believed.

But the lawyers and abuse victims from the United States and Europe who held a news conference at the court on Tuesday said their action was necessary because all the investigations and prosecutions of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in various countries had not been sufficient to prevent continuing crimes and coverups. Two of the victims whose cases are highlighted in the filing say that the priests who sexually abused them simply moved to different countries and are still in ministry working with children, with the knowledge of church superiors. Victims have said that one priest is supervising schools in India and the other is in Rwanda, running an orphanage.

“National jurisdictions can’t really get their arms around this,” said Pamela Spees, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who helped prepare the filing. “Prosecuting individual instances of child molestation or sexual assault has not gotten at the larger systemic problem here. Accountability is the goal, and the I.C.C. makes the most sense, given that it’s a global problem.”

In addition to Pope Benedict XVI, the filing asks the court to prosecute Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state; Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the previous secretary of state and the current dean of the College of Cardinals; and Cardinal William J. Levada, who is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office designated to receive cases of clergy sexual abuse that are forwarded by bishops.

A central question is whether the accusations will fit the court’s mandate. The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed after July 1, 2002, when the court opened. It is independent of the United Nations and has jurisdiction in the 117 countries that so far have ratified the Rome Statute that created the court. Italy, Germany and the Netherlands are signatories, while the Vatican and the United States are not.

The filing against the Vatican cites five cases in which priests have been accused of abuse in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the United States; the priests in these cases are from Belgium, India and the United States.

Ms. Spees said she hoped to persuade the court that the cases were within its jurisdiction, because they involve abuses that she said were “systematic and widespread,” and because the pope and two of the three cardinals named in the filing are from nations that are signatories to the Rome Statute.

Experts in international law said that the sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests was sufficiently heinous and widespread to be taken to the court. The question is whether the facts show that the Vatican officials actively committed crimes against humanity by perpetuating the abuse as a matter of deliberate policty.

Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association, which is based in London, said he thought that the court would open a preliminary investigation to determine whether it has jurisdiction — and that it would probably conclude that it did not.

“Crimes against humanity means acts that are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population,” Mr. Ellis said. “What you’re looking at is really a policy, in which the government or the authorities are planning the attack.”

“When you look at the concept of why and how the I.C.C. was created, I just don’t think this fits,” he said. “But the filing does something that’s important. It raises awareness. Ultimately the plaintiffs will elevate this in the public eye and it will force the court to respond.”

The victims and their advocates plan to spend the next week traveling to cities in Europe to encourage other victims to come forward.

Benjamin Kitobo, whose case is included in the complaint, said that he informed an internal church commission recently about a Belgian priest who sodomized him and other students 30 years ago in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But the priest has been allowed to continue running an orphanage in Rwanda, Mr. Kitobo said.

“It’s not a payoff we are looking for,” said Mr. Kitobo, who now lives in St. Louis. “We need the protection of kids.”

Marlise Simons contributed reporting from Paris and Rachel Donadio from Rome.

Reprinted from the New York Times, International, of Tuesday, September 13, 2011.