LONDON — Protests are growing against Pope Benedict XVI’s planned trip to Britain, where some lawyers question whether the Vatican’s implicit statehood status should shield the pope from prosecution over sex crimes by pedophile priests.

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition on Downing Street’s Web site against the pope’s four-day visit to England and Scotland in September, which will cost U.K. taxpayers an estimated $22.5 million. The campaign has gained momentum as more Catholic sex abuse scandals have swept across Europe.

Although Benedict has not been accused of any crime, senior British lawyers are now examining whether the pope should have immunity as a head of state and whether he could be prosecuted under the principle of universal jurisdiction for an alleged systematic cover-up of sexual abuses by priests.

Universal jurisdiction — a concept in international law — allows judges to issue warrants for nearly any visitor accused of grievous crimes, no matter where they live. British judges have been more open to the concept than those in other countries.

Lawyers are divided over the immunity issue. Some argue that the Vatican isn’t a true state, while others note the Vatican has national relations with about 170 countries, including Britain.

Geoffrey Robertson, who has served as a U.N. appeals judge, believes it could be time to challenge the immunity of the pope — and that Britain could be the place.

“Unlike in the United States, where the judges commonly uphold what the executive says, the British courts don’t accept these things at face value,” Robertson said Saturday.