On January 16th, Vatican representatives appeared before the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to answer questions about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The hearing was part of the committee's 65th session in Geneva, scheduled for January 13-31 in Geneva, Switzerland. According to the New York Times, the Geneva hearing was meant to explore the Vatican's failure to uphold the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The committee will issue final recommendations on February 5th.
Observing the hearing were advocates for clergy sexual abuse victims from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). SNAP distributed leaflets outside of Geneva's Basilique Notre-Dame de Genève on January 14th to bring public attention to the upcoming hearing.
CCR and SNAP submitted a supplemental report to the committee in December 2013 in advance of the hearing, accusing the Holy See of neglecting its responsibility to address clergy abuse. "[T]he acts and omissions of its agents have clearly produced effects that resulted in the violation of the rights of children to be free from sexual exploitation and violence," the report argues. Specifically, the document slams the Holy See for claiming that its jurisdiction is limited to Vatican City rather than to its clerical representatives around the globe.
"We note that the Holy See’s response goes to great length to confine its obligations and liabilities under the Convention to the territory of Vatican City State, where it acknowledges citizenship and/or residence of 31 children. The Holy See seeks to redirect responsibility for widespread and systemic violations of the Convention and OPSC occurring in other sovereign territories that were committed, abetted, facilitated or covered up by Catholic officials acting under its authority to other States ... This representation by the Holy See is particularly disingenuous in light of the all-too-numerous accounts of efforts by bishops, archbishops, cardinals and other Church officials around the world to cover up these crimes and subvert the course of justice in other States, further compounding the harm to victims."Representing the Vatican at the January 16th hearing were Bishop Charles J. Scicluna, former Vatican chief sex crimes prosecutor, and Msgr. Silvano Tomasi, Vatican representative to the United Nations. In a transcript of his presentation posted at the Vatican website, Msgr. Silvano Tomasi told the committee that the Holy See has taken concrete steps to address clergy abuse.
"Confronted with this reality, the Holy See has carefully delineated policies and procedures designed to help eliminate such abuse and to collaborate with respective State authorities to fight against this crime. The Holy See is also committed to listen carefully to victims of abuse and to address the impact such situations have on survivors of abuse and on their families."The UN panel pulled no punches with Vatican representatives. "Why is there no mandatory reporting to a country's judicial authorities when crimes occur?" asked committee member Hiranthi Wijemanne, according to the Christian Science Monitor. The New York Times reports that committee vice president Sara de Jesús Oviedo Fierro asked Vatican representatives about efforts to cover-up sexual abuse cases. “It is not the policy of the Holy See to encourage cover-ups. This is against the truth," Scicluna insisted. When asked why the Holy See does not mandate that local diocese report sexual abuse to civil authorities, Scicluna replied that, "Our guidelines have always said the domestic law of the country needs to be followed."
Tomasi deflected responsibility away from the Vatican, arguing that the Holy See is not responsible for the actions of clergy abroad, as its jurisdiction is limited to Vatican City. Priests, he argued, are "not functionaries of the Vatican but citizens of their countries and fall under the jurisdiction of their own countries," according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Following the meeting, SNAP expressed its disgust. Shortly after the hearing, SNAP and CCR leaders offered commentary during a live webcast. SNAP president Barbara Blaine praised the hearing as a historic milestone at the 5:35 mark.
"Today, it was a historic day. It's the very first time ever that Vatican officials were called to task or that they had to answer questions ... What gives me hope at this point is that I know that there's going to be a report, and then there's going to be standards by which the Vatican will be judged. And hopefully this is the beginning, and now maybe other international bodies will begin to question the Vatican as this Committee on the Rights of the Child did today."At the 6:40 mark, Barbara Blaine claimed that Vatican representatives failed to give satisfactory answers to questions at the hearing, adding that Pope Francis needs to take more action against abuse.
"I'm extremely disappointed in the response of the Vatican ... Bottom line is that they didn't answer any new questions, and they're giving more of the same. They're giving lofty statements without any action, and we think that Pope Francis should be taking action that will protect children by turning over evidence of sex crimes to police and by punishing bishops who have enabled and who covered up for and shielded predators from police."In a January 16th press release, SNAP national board member Mary Caplan criticized Vatican representatives for their anemic testimony. "We are disappointed that Catholic officials ignored those questions or answered them poorly," she wrote
"Two high-ranking Catholic officials today basically told a United Nations panel that the Vatican has little real power to stop bishops from hiding clergy sex crimes. We’re very saddened that such a huge and powerful church bureaucracy continues to pretend it’s powerless over its own officials.Pam Spees, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, lamented that the Holy See has "consistently refused to accept responsibility for its role in perpetuating rape and sexual violence against children in the Church and further enabling it by protecting offending priests." In a CCR statement, Spees expressed disappointment in the Vatican's response to clergy abuse but admitted that the hearing was a positive step.
These clerics said some nice things today in Geneva. But unfortunately, the encouraging public words today by Catholic officials differ radically from the actual and distressing private behavior of Catholic officials. Before the cameras, the church hierarchy often denounces predators and thanks victims. But behind closed doors, the church hierarchy often protects predators and rebuffs victims.
The Catholic officials today repeatedly cited vague, new and unenforced internal church abuse guidelines. But these are meaningless because no one is ever punished for breaking church abuse guidelines.
And many of the guidelines focus on child molesting clerics while ignoring the bigger problem: corrupt church officials who are still endangering kids, moving offenders, stonewalling law enforcement and deceiving parishioners and the public."
"The Vatican attempted to relegate the issue to the past and claim it is a new era, that they now ‘get it,’ but they continue to refuse to turn over records for prosecution, punish higher-ups that covered up the crimes, or provide any real evidence that they are now putting the safety of children above the reputation of the Church. Nonetheless, today’s hearing is a milestone in calling for an end to these days of impunity. The international community is demanding answers, and that is the first step toward true accountability and, we hope, an end to the widespread violence against children.”SNAP and CCR have every right to be disappointed. Clergy sexual abuse has left too many children traumatized, and cover-ups by church leaders have impeded justice. The Catholic Church is obliged to take responsibility for clergy abuse if it wants to be seen as a moral authority instead of a corrupt, callous institution. Deflecting responsibility and protecting abusers was immoral in the past, and it continues to be immoral now.
However, SNAP's Barbara Blaine was correct when she called the hearing "historic". The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child held the Vatican's feet to the fire on a global stage, drawing international attention to clergy abuse. If the Vatican understands that it will be held accountable before a global audience, it may take its moral duty to address abuse more seriously.
To read additional commentary, visit the following links.
Religion Dispatches: In Sexual Abuse Hearing UN Calls Holy See on Girls’ Reproductive Right
RH Reality Check: The Vatican Sex Abuse Hearing in One Word: Troubling