By Laurie Goodstein, Nick Cumming-Bruce and Jim Yardley (New York Times)
February 5, 2014
In a hard-hitting report applauded by victims as a landmark in the Roman Catholic Church’s clerical sexual-abuse scandal, a United Nations committee on Wednesday called on the Vatican to remove all child abusers from its ranks, report them to law enforcement and open the church’s archives so that bishops and other officials who concealed crimes could be held accountable.
The report, issued by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, is likely to put pressure on Pope Francis to make concrete changes in the way the church handles abuse cases and put some muscle into the commission on abuse that he announced in December, whose members and mission have not yet been specified.
The Vatican responded on Wednesday that it had already made many of the changes called for in the report, and that the report’s conclusions were out of date.
The report, however, was sharply critical of the church’s current practices, not just those of the past. “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 concluded.
The criticism came from a panel that examined the Vatican’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international agreement signed by 140 sovereign entities, including the Vatican. The panel held a hearing on the issue last month, the first time the Vatican faced public examination by an international body of its record on sexual abuse, and heard testimony from Bishop Charles J. Scicluna, the Vatican’s chief prosecutor of sexual abuse cases until 2012, who told the panel that “the Holy See gets it.”
The report, issued in Geneva, addressed issues far beyond child sexual abuse, taking the Vatican to task for its opposition to contraception, homosexuality and abortion in cases of child rape and incest. The committee even suggested that the church amend its canon laws to permit abortions for pregnant girls whose lives and health are at risk.
But the Vatican press office said in a statement that it regretted to see the United Nations committee “attempt to interfere” with Catholic teaching and the church’s “exercise of religious freedom.”
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a blog post that the report was “weakened” by the panel’s decision to include objections to Catholic teaching on “culture war” issues.
On the many pressing problems related to child welfare, the report recommended specific steps it said the Vatican should take: stop obstructing efforts by victims’ advocates in some countries to extend statutes of limitations, which now allow most abusers to escape prosecution; stop insisting that victims sign confidentiality agreements swearing them to silence as a condition for receiving compensation; help birth parents locate children who were taken from them for adoption out of Catholic institutions like the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland; and identify, count and financially support children fathered by Catholic priests without imposing confidentiality agreements on the mothers.
Kirsten Sandberg, the chairwoman of the United Nations panel, said Wednesday at a news conference in Geneva that tens of thousands of children around the world had suffered abuse by priests. “We think it is a horrible thing that is being kept silent both by the Holy See itself and in the different local parishes,” she said.
The panel rejected the church’s key contention that the Vatican has no jurisdiction over its bishops and priests around the world, and is responsible for putting in effect the Convention on the Rights of the Child only within the tiny territory of Vatican City. By ratifying the convention, the panel said, the Vatican took responsibility for making sure it was respected by individuals and institutions under the Holy See’s authority around the world.
The panel’s report on the Vatican’s treatment of children, its first in 14 years, called on the church to report back on its progress in 2017. Although the panel’s recommendations are not binding, Ms. Sandberg said it expected Francis and the Holy See to act on them.
Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, who was abused by a priest as a child, said the report was “long overdue.”
“It is wonderful that the U.N. has spoken so clearly about what the Vatican has done — and what it has failed to do,” said Ms. Dorris, who is based in St. Louis. “To us, it is a call for the civil authorities to step in. Church officials have proved they cannot police themselves.”
But Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the pope’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva, characterized the United Nations report in a radio interview as “a rather negative approach” to steps the Vatican had already taken, and said the report “in some ways is not up-to-date.” He said a Vatican delegation had told the committee about “concrete measures” that were being taken, including the new papal commission.
Francis, who became pope last March, has begun a broad overhaul of the Vatican bureaucracy and has established commissions to deal with several delicate issues, including the one announced in December to address clerical sexual abuse. One Vatican official said that commission’s president would be named “within weeks.”
Since 2001, sexual-abuse cases sent to the Vatican have been handled there by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In an address last week, Francis told members of that group that he was studying a possible link to his new commission, signaling that the commission might become involved in adjudicating abuse cases.
Francis has been widely praised for his humble style and moderating tone on issues like homosexuality, but he has been less outspoken on the abuse issue. He has described clerical sexual abuse as the “shame of the church,” but has otherwise rarely spoken about it and has not met in public with abuse victims, unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
At his general audience on Wednesday, Francis greeted Philomena Lee, the subject of the Oscar-nominated movie “Philomena.” The film portrays her decades of searching for the son taken from her as an unwed mother living in a Catholic institution run by nuns in Ireland. Ms. Lee is on a campaign to get the Irish government to force open adoption records to help reunite birth mothers with their children, and she was seeking the pope’s blessing.