In what many in the media described as the first set of clouds in Pope Francis’ sunny pontificate, a United Nations committee on Feb. 5 published a damning report on the Holy See’s record on sexual abuse, demanding that it turn over secret files and condemning it for putting the preservation of its reputation before the welfare of children. Yet within two days, the story had turned, as critics asked why the United Nations had chosen to ignore the evidence given it by the Holy See last month, and what its true agenda was.
The human rights committee that issued the report is tasked with holding signatories of the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to account for implementing its provisions. The Holy See makes its way to Geneva every four years — as one of 193 countries — to give a progress report and answer questions.
This year, the Holy See sent its delegate Italian Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, together with Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna (who, until recently, was the Vatican’s leading expert on the issue), to the Jan. 16 hearing. The delegates answered the committee’s questions robustly, gave detailed evidence about the steps taken by the Holy See to promote best practices and described the sea change in attitudes that had taken place in the Church worldwide and the Vatican in particular.
“The Holy See gets it, let’s not say too late,” said Archbishop Scicluna.
The committee appeared to be impressed, and commentators anticipated that its report would congratulate the Holy See on its transformation but press it to go further in certain key areas.
Yet when it came out, the report treated the Holy See and the Church as a retrograde corporation, accusing it of “systematically” adopting polices that allowed priests to rape and molest thousands of children over decades, and demanded that the Vatican “immediately remove” all clergy suspected of abuse.
“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,” the report said. It also faulted the Vatican for its teachings on abortion, homosexual activity and contraception.
Critics were quick to point out that not only had the report ignored the evidence that the Church was a transformed institution, but that it profoundly misunderstood the relationship of the Holy See to the worldwide Catholic Church, treating it as if it were the head office of a multinational corporation. They also described the attempt to impose an ideology of sexuality and gender as irrelevant to the Rights of the Child and a violation of essential religious freedoms. To some, it looked as if the Vatican had been ambushed.
Initially, the Holy See responded diplomatically, promising to submit the report to a “thorough study and examination” while regretting “an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of the human person and in the exercise of religious freedom.” But the following day, noting the mounting indignation, Vatican officials opted to come out swinging.
The report had ignored “the clear and precise explanations that were given to the committee in the encounter that the delegation of the Holy See had with the committee three or four weeks ago,” objected Archbishop Tomasi, who noted its “negative approach” and failure to take into account the fact that the Holy See’s spiritual authority over the worldwide Church did not extend to legal jurisdiction. He was referring to calls made by the U.N. committee, for example, for the Vatican to change the curriculum of Catholic schools, when this was a matter for local bishops.
The Vatican’s spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, was even fiercer. The committee members went “beyond their competence and interfered in the doctrinal and moral positions of the Catholic Church,” he said, making suggestions that reveal an “ideological vision of sexuality.” He criticized the report’s “serious limitations,” above all its failure to take into account the responses — both written and oral — given by representatives of the Holy See before and during the Geneva hearing on Jan. 16. The report, he said Feb. 7, appears to have been “practically already written, or at least already in large part blocked out before the hearing.”
Father Lombardi said the committee had ignored the point that priests and bishops are subject to the laws of their own nations.
“Is this impossible to understand, or do they not want to understand it?” he asked. “In both cases, one has a right to be surprised.”
Father Lombardi added that the tone of the criticism and the specific cases cited suggested that the committee “gave much greater attention to well-known organizations” representing victims than to the testimony of Vatican representatives.
“These organizations typically do not want to recognize how much the Holy See and the Church have done in recent years to recognize errors, renew norms and develop measures for formation and prevention,” Father Lombardi said.
In interviews, the committee’s chair, Kristen Sandberg, suggested that the Vatican’s responses had been vague and that they couldn’t be confident of what had been actually implemented.
“We heard during the dialogue a lot of promising things, but we have not been quite sure that they are still going on,” she told the BBC, suggesting that the committee, faced with the evidence, had simply chosen not to believe the Holy See delegates. The committee had taken the viewpoint not just of abuse survivors’ lawyers, but of highly ideological lobbies such as the London-based Child Rights International Network (CRIN), whose director is on the executive committee of the CRC’s NGO group. CRIN’s mission is to expose and combat sexual violence in religious institutions, which, on its website it makes clear, it regards as arcane, unaccountable and with entrenched power structures that pose a risk to minors. In the run-up to the mid-January Geneva hearing, CRIN was busy organizing a campaign against the Holy See, releasing to the media the findings of its own report, entitled “Child Sexual Abuse and the Holy See: the need for justice, accountability and reform.” Placed side by side, comparing their accusations, assumptions and demands, the CRIN report and the U.N. committee’s look virtually identical. Father Lombardi’s suspicions — that the report was cast in stone before the hearing — look amply justified.
The Holy See was among the first to sign the Convention in 1990. In its first report on its progress, in 1995, the committee made no mention whatsoever of abuse in the Catholic Church, which was then coming to light in press reports and lawsuits. The committee itself appears to have had little awareness of the issue back then. How ironic that in 2014, having played no part in the Church’s reforms in this area, the committee should treat the Church — which is a transformed institution and regarded now as a civil-society leader in this area — as if it were still 1995.
Despite the injustices, Father Lombardi made it clear that the Holy See would remain a convention signatory and committed to “fulfilling the requirements of the treaty.”
At least next time it will be prepared.
Austen Ivereigh is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices (www.catholicvoices.org.uk).