The leadership of the Roman Catholic church is engaged in a tense standoff with the United Nations after a damning report on the Holy See’s handling of the clerical sex abuse scandal was branded out of date, unfair and ideological by a top Vatican official.
After the appearance last month of a Holy See delegation before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the expert panel published a series of highly critical observations accusing the church of failing to acknowledge the scale of the problem and implementing policies that led to “the continuation of the abuse and the impunity of the perpetrators”.
The committee said it was particularly concerned that, when dealing with allegations of children being abused by priests, “the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests”.
The panel also found fault with some central church teachings and their impact on children’s health, urging the Vatican to reconsider its stance on abortion and contraception, and encouraging it to tone down criticism of homosexuality in an attempt to reduce “social stigmatisation” and violence against gay youths and children raised by gay couples.
In a swift and terse response, the Vatican released a statement saying it would submit the findings “to a thorough study and examination” but did not appreciate being asked to change its position on issues it considered immutable.
“The Holy See does … regret to see in some points of the concluding observations an attempt to interfere with Catholic church teaching on the dignity of [the] human person and in the exercise of religious freedom,” it said.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer at the UN in Geneva, went further, saying he had been surprised by the findings, which he considered “not up to date” and a distorted depiction that ignored recent progress.
Tomasi, who was part of last month’s delegation, said the report seemed “almost to have been prepared before” that meeting, and ignored the “precise responses on various points” that he and other officials had given. Asked by Vatican Radio why he thought the findings had been so harsh, he said he suspected pro-gay rights NGOs had influenced the committee and “reinforced an ideological line” in the UN.
Advocates for the survivors of clerical sex abuse welcomed the committee’s findings. “This day has been a long time coming, but the international community is finally holding the Vatican accountable for its role in enabling and perpetuating sexual violence in the church,” said Katherine Gallagher, a senior staff attorney at the US-based Centre for Constitutional Rights.
“The whole world will be watching to ensure that the Vatican takes the concrete steps required by the UN to protect children and end these crimes.”
Pope Francis has referred to clerical child sex abuse as “the shame of the church”, yet has not often spoken out about it, preferring to focus on other issues such as poverty and the evils of the global financial system. In December he announced the establishment of a commission of experts to look at how the church could better protect children from potential abusers.
When they appeared in Geneva last month, Tomasi and Charles Scicluna, a former sex crimes prosecutor at the Vatican and auxiliary bishop of Malta, said guidelines already put in place by the Holy See and Catholic churches around the world had, when properly applied, presented a way of eliminating the scourge of abuse. “The Holy See gets it,” Scicluna declared.
But, according to the UN committee, that is yet to be proved. “The committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators,” it wrote in its first concluding observations on the Holy See – a signatory to the UN convention on the rights of the child – since 1995.
Dismissing a key plank of the Holy See’s argument – that the church is not comparable to a global business and the Vatican cannot be expected to keep in check all clergy in all parts of the world – the committee said that by ratifying the convention it had committed itself to implementing it “not only on the territory of the Vatican City state but also as the supreme power of the Catholic church through individuals and institutions placed under its authority”.
Attacking what it described as a “code of silence” that had restricted the reporting of suspected crimes, the committee criticised the practice of moving priests found to have abused children from parish to parish or to other countries “in an attempt to cover up such crimes”.
The committee noted: “The practice of offenders’ mobility, which has allowed many priests to remain in contact with children and to continue to abuse them, still places children in many countries at high risk of sexual abuse, as dozens of child sexual offenders are reported to be still in contact with children.”
Last month Scicluna told the panel that this was “a grave concern”, but said dioceses and parishes were now obliged to pass on information concerning a priest wanting to move on. He also said: “It is not a policy of the Holy See to encourage cover-ups.”
The UN panel also criticised the Holy See for refusing to hand over data concerning all cases of abuse brought to its attention during the period in question, and their outcomes. It said confidential disciplinary proceedings had “allowed the vast majority of abusers and almost all those who concealed child sexual abuse to escape judicial proceedings in states where abuses were committed”.
The findings were not limited to clerical abuse, exploring other areas – from the classification of “illegitimate” children to the use of so-called baby boxes – where it said the Catholic church could improve its protection of children’s rights.
It was particularly critical of the Vatican’s handling of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries scandal, in which thousands of women and girls were abused and enslaved, saying a full Vatican investigation should be launched and the abusers prosecuted. It demanded full compensation be paid to the victims and their families who were caught up in the system in Ireland.
Last year the Irish state finally said sorry to 10,000 women and girls incarcerated in Catholic church-run laundries, where they were treated as virtual slaves. The taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said what happened to the Magdalene women had “cast a long shadow over Irish life, over our sense of who we are”, and he “deeply regretted and apologised” for the hurt and trauma inflicted.
Clerical sex abuse: the UN’s recommendations
• All known and suspected child abusers must be immediately removed from their positions and the relevant civil law enforcement authorities notified. This reporting to civil authorities must be mandatory; clear rules and procedures should be set up to facilitate it; and all church employees must be taught that these obligations prevail over church law.
• Pope Francis’s commission should investigate independently all cases of abuse and “the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them”. It should consider appointing representatives of civil society and victims groups.
• Archives of past cases dealt with by the Holy See must be opened to allow for both the abusers and those who may have sought to conceal their crimes and “knowingly placed offenders in contact with children” to be held accountable.
The committee’s findings are non-binding. The report notes that most of the recommendations made by the panel in 1995 have “not been fully addressed”.