The Vatican and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

THE ENQUIRY

On January 16, the Vatican was subjected to unprecedented interrogation by a United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Committee, an 18-member independent panel that includes academics, sociologists and child development specialists from around the world, posed very blunt questions to the Vatican delegation concerning the rape and molestation of thousands of children by priests, monks and nuns in countries all around the world for many decades.

The Holy See ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 but failed to provide the required progress reports for more than a decade.

In response to the most probing questions the Vatican has ever had to face on the world stage, the delegation from the Holy See showed a modicum of remorse for the past behaviour of the Church and was mildly conciliatory. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's representative in Geneva, said, "such crimes can never be justified,” which goes without saying. Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who for a decade was the most senior Vatican official in charge of dealing with sexual abuse cases, acknowledged that the church had made mistakes in the past. He told the Committee,

"The Holy See gets it …… There are certainly things that need to be done differently," "It is not the policy of the Holy See to encourage cover-ups. Only the truth will help us move on to a situation where we can start being an example of best practice."

This, is of course, an outright lie. It has been the policy of the Catholic Church for decades to cover up accusations against its priests, nuns and bishops. It has been the policy of the Church for decades to belittle, bully and bribe anyone who came forward with an accusation.  Civil cases now abound where this has been shown to be the case. And to most people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the Vatican is the heart and command centre of the Catholic Church – which is one of the world’s last absolute monarchies.

This is not the case, however, according to Archbishop Tomasi who reiterated an old and tired argument that the Vatican cannot be held responsible for the actions of clergy members in countries around the world and that its remit extends only to those living and working within the Vatican City State – a tiny area in the centre of Rome about 1/12th the size of New York’s Central Park, where fewer than 40 children reside. Priests were "not functionaries of the Vatican but citizens of their countries and fall under the jurisdiction of their own countries," he said. The fact that abusing priests have been moved from country to country means hat this is an obfuscation of the first rank.  As an Australian resident, I note the regularity with which offending priests have been sent to Australia from elsewhere, as if Australia is the Vatican’s very own penal colony.

THE REPORT

On February 5, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a damning report on the Catholic Church, saying that “tens of thousands of children worldwide” had been raped or molested in the past and that sexual abuse continues today.

The Committee accused the Catholic Church of humiliating victims, paying them “compensation” in return for their silence, and failing to refer abusive clergy to the police. Instead, according to the report, abusive priests had simply been moved from one diocese to another, sometimes in another country, thus allowing “many priests to remain in contact with children and to continue to abuse them.”

The report accused the Vatican of systematically protecting its reputation instead of looking out for the safety of children.  Among other things the Committee called on the Vatican to immediately remove priests known to be, or suspected of being child molesters. It also called on the Vatican to open its archives on abusers and the bishops who covered up for them, and to turn the abuse cases over to law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution.

The Committee was not very impressed with the claims made by senior prelates that it has already instituted new safeguards, and it accused the Church of continuing to harbour criminals.

"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.”

Most importantly, the Committee rejected the Vatican's longstanding argument that it doesn't control bishops or their abusive priests. One member of the panel, Benyam Mezmur, an Ethiopian academic, a specialist on children’s legal rights, cited a letter from a Vatican cardinal advising Irish bishops to refrain from any policy requiring they report paedophiles to police. "They keep saying they don't have the authority, but in the meantime we have had instances of the Holy See trying to influence bishops," he said in an interview. "You cannot have it both ways. Either you have influence or you don't."

The Committee held that the Vatican is responsible for every priest, parish and Catholic school in the world, calling on it to pay compensation to all victims of sexual abuse worldwide.

Sadly, the Committee’s recommendations are non-binding and there is no enforcement mechanism. But it asked the Vatican to comply and report back by 2017.

Next: An Assessment of the Report and a Call to Action