An Assessment of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Report and a Call for Papal Action


There has been much critical response to this Committee hearing and the resulting report, and rightly so. It has turned out to be a lost opportunity.

To start with, the report was far too broad. In addition to its findings on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the Committee chose to make pronouncements and recommendations about abortion, about gay rights and about contraception. I take issue with much of the Catholic Church’s position on all three of those issues, but it was a mistake to include them in this report. The sexual abuse of children is by far the biggest moral issue facing the Church. There is no doctrine or Canon Law which can possibly endorse this scourge and yet the Church has been, until very recently, utterly obstructive in protecting children from it and very, very active in protecting itself, its reputation and its assets.

The other three issues are different. As much as I might disagree with the doctrines, they are doctrines, and as such the Church has a right to defend them and promote them. One could argue that by choosing to be Catholics people choose to accept these doctrines, whereas it could never be said that by choosing Catholicism people choose to put their and other children in harm’s way.  By merging all the issues together in its report the Committee has diluted the seriousness of the primary issue – sexual abuse – and given the Vatican room to criticise the report as being “just anti-Catholic.”

Secondly, the Report almost ignores what the Catholic Church has done in the last few years to address this problem. In response to the crisis Pope Benedict XVI introduced a zero tolerance policy for the universal church, which means that a priest involved in the abuse of a child should never be able to function as a priest again. In the last two years around 400 priests were dismissed from the priesthood. In addition, in 2010 Benedict ordered that local churches must follow local laws with regard to reporting abuse to civil authorities. He also ordered every episcopal conference in the world to draw up policies and procedures for handling sexual abuse cases. (Incidentally, these rulings of Benedict put the lie to the claim that the Vatican has no authority outside the Holy See).

Had the Committee paid attention to these developments, it might have investigated whether these new policies are being enforced and whether bishops who don’t follow the policies are being held accountable. Such an investigation would have revealed, for example, that Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., was convicted in court of not reporting a priest and is still in office. It would also have uncovered the fact that the Italian bishops’ conference has decided not to require bishops to report abusive priests to the authorities. The Committee could have demanded that the Vatican direct the Italian bishops to obey.

By ignoring recent developments the Committee has put its own findings in jeopardy. It is too easy to dismiss it, as a lot in the Church have, for being inaccurate, biased and already out of date. 


The deficiencies  of the Report notwithstanding, it does draw attention in a very public way to the ongoing crisis of sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church.  It does put Pope Francis on notice that unless he makes some very decisive moves in relation to child sexual abuse all his other reforming actions on such things as Vatican Bank reform, reduction of flamboyant expenditure and reorientation of concern away from doctrine and towards pastoral care will be so much window dressing. 

It is true that Francis has established a Papal Commission on issues of child sexual abuse. The commission was put together rather hurriedly and so far very little is known about its remit or powers. There are some things, however, which cannot -- must not -- wait for the inevitably slow working of any commission.

Francis needs to act decisively, now, in five areas.

1.      He needs to employ the mechanisms already in place to remove abusing priests from the priesthood and to punish those who have aided and abetted them by covering up their crimes.

2.      He must give full cooperation to civil authorities by making available all the Vatican’s records on child abuse matters.

3.      He must put the weight of the Church behind the idea that statutes of limitation, which in many jurisdictions prevent survivors from bringing cases against clergy who abused them in childhood, should be modified or abolished for sex abuse cases.  Now the Church is often the most powerful lobbying group trying to preserve or extend the statute of limitations.

4.      He must honour the words of his homily delivered on January 16, the very day that the UN Committee hearing was taking place in Geneva, when he said that abuse scandals had "cost us a lot of money, but [paying damages] is only right."


5.      He must put an end to the shameful fiction that the Vatican has no control or influence over the vast empire of the Roman Catholic Church.


The canon law of the Catholic Church is quite clear about the extent of papal authority

Canon 331 states “The vicar of Christ . . . possesses full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”

Canon 333 is even clearer. It reads, “By virtue of his office, the Roman pontiff not only possesses power over the universal church, but also obtains the primacy of ordinary power over all particular churches and groups of them.”

When Pope Francis seizes the power which is his and acts for the benefit of the thousands of souls who have been raped and molested, who have had their lives shattered and their spirits broken, he will be entitled to be called a reforming Pope. Until then he is a very good window dresser.