VATICAN CITY – The U.N.’s damning report on the Vatican’s handling of child sex abuse cases has turned up the pressure on the church to convince a skeptical international community it has adopted a zero-tolerance approach.
“The Vatican has taken some steps forward, but they have been largely symbolic: energetic words rather than actions. The U.N. is right to have spoken out so strongly,” said Vatican commentator Paolo Flores D’Arcais.
The church was denounced by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child on Wednesday for failing to stamp out predatory priests, and urged to hand over known and suspected abusers for prosecution.
The U.N. committee’s recommendations are nonbinding but have held up a fresh mirror to highly damaging Vatican failures.
In a scathing report that thrilled victims and stunned the Vatican, the United Nations committee said the Holy See maintained a “code of silence” that enabled priests to sexually abuse tens of thousands of children worldwide over decades with impunity.
Among other things, the panel called on the Vatican to immediately remove all priests known or suspected to be child molesters, open its archives on abusers and the bishops who covered up for them, and turn the abuse cases over to law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution.
The committee largely brushed aside the Vatican’s claims that it has already instituted new safeguards, and it accused the Roman Catholic Church of still harboring 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,” the panel said.
The report was a bolt from the blue for an institution reveling in the popularity of its new pope, Francis, who has spoken little of the abuse and who appeared to hope the church had left the crisis behind it.
Some Vatican watchers believe much has been done to set an important moral example for wayward clergy.
The accusations “belong to the past. Benedict XVI brought about a great change through his closeness to victims . . . praying and crying with them,” said religious watcher Andrea Tornielli, who writes for newspaper La Stampa’s Vatican Insider website.
But the Vatican’s lack of transparency — insisting on dealing with the scandal behind closed doors — has disappointed victims.
For more than a decade, the church has been rocked by a cascade of scandals around the world, with victims describing the trauma of abuse at the hands of people charged with their care. The Vatican says it continues to receive around 600 claims against abusive priests every year, many dating back to the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Former Pope Benedict apologized in 2010 for the “sinful and criminal” acts committed by members of the clergy, saying he was “truly sorry” and going on to defrock 400 offenders between 2011 and 2012.
His successor, Pope Francis, has said Catholics should feel “shame” for abuse and has presided over the creation of a commission to investigate sex crimes, enforce prevention and care for victims — though it has yet to begin work.
While several bishops have stepped down over scandals in their dioceses, victims and support groups demand someone be held legally accountable.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) dismissed as inadequate the Vatican’s tense response that it had “taken note” of the U.N. report and would submit it to “a thorough study and examination.”
“Bishops don’t move predators, shun victims, rebuff prosecutors, shred evidence, intimidate witnesses, discredit whistle-blowers, dodge responsibility, fabricate alibis . . . because of inadequate ‘study,’ ” SNAP said. “The quickest way to prevent child sexual violence by Catholic clerics is for Pope Francis to publicly remove all offenders from ministry. . . . But like his predecessors, he has refused to take even tiny steps in this direction.”
The Vatican’s Secretary of State Pietro Parolin spoke of the church’s “desire to adhere to the commission’s needs.”
But frustration over the Vatican’s handling of the matter was expressed even by some Catholic groups.
“If the pope is serious about turning the page on this scandal, he should immediately dismiss any bishop who oversaw a diocese in which a priest who abused children was shielded from the civil authorities,” said Jon O’Brien, head of the U.S. lobby group Catholics for Choice. “There can be no place in our church for bishops or priests who put children at risk. From now on, there must be zero tolerance for bishops who shield child abusers.”
Whether the Vatican will take steps to enforce legal consequences for predator priests or not, it has criticized the U.N.’s parallel request for changes to church attitudes to abortion as going against its attempts to protect child welfare.
“The Committee on the Rights of the Child . . . recommends the Holy See change its position on abortion. (But) when a child is dead, it has no rights!” said Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the UN.
The report puts pressure on Francis to take decisive action after a year in which he has largely let the abuse portfolio fall by the wayside as he tackled other pressing issues, such as reforming the Vatican bureaucracy.
The Vatican announced in December that the new pope would create a commission to study how to prevent abuse and help victims, but no firm details about its makeup or scope have been released since. And critically, the Vatican has yet to sanction any bishop for having covered up for an abusive priest, even though more than a decade has passed since the scandal exploded in the U.S. and countless law enforcement investigations around the world made it clear the role bishops played.
The report was issued by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, an 18-member panel that includes academics, sociologists and child development specialists from around the globe. Its job is to monitor compliance with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty the Vatican ratified in 1990. The treaty calls for signatories to protect children from harm. Only three countries have failed to ratify it: the U.S., Somalia and South Sudan.
“The committee expresses serious concern that in dealing with child victims of different forms of abuse, the Holy See has systematically placed preservation of the reputation of the church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims,” the report concluded.
At a news conference in Geneva, committee Chairwoman Kirsten Sandberg ticked off some of the core findings: that bishops moved pedophile priests from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police, that known abusers are still in contact with children, and that the Vatican has never required bishops to report abusers to police.
“This report gives hope to the hundreds of thousands of deeply wounded and still suffering clergy sex abuse victims across the world,” said SNAP President Barbara Blaine.
“Now it’s up to secular officials to follow the U.N.’s lead and step in to safeguard the vulnerable because Catholic officials are either incapable or unwilling to do so.”
Critically, the committee rejected the Vatican’s long-standing argument that it doesn’t control bishops or their abusive priests.
The panel essentially held the Vatican responsible for every priest, parish and Catholic school in the world, calling on it to pay compensation to all victims of sexual abuse worldwide, and also to those who labored in Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries, the church-run workhouses where young women were subject to slave labor and often had their out-of-wedlock babies taken from them.
While the Vatican itself didn’t raise an objection to that aspect of the report, other church advocates did.
“I think that the U.N. report describes a monolithic church that does not exist in fact,” said Nicholas Cafardi, a U.S. canon lawyer and former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ lay review board that monitored clerical abuse. “The pope in Rome cannot control and is certainly not responsible for what happens throughout the Catholic world.”
The committee disagreed. Benyam Mezmur, a committee member and Ethiopian academic on children’s legal rights, cited among other things a letter from a Vatican cardinal advising Irish bishops to refrain from any policy requiring they report pedophiles 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.”