In a scathing report released Wednesday on the Holy See’s adherence to the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an aggressive United Nations committee knocked the Holy See off the high ground.
Stunning in its frankness and scope, the report began with the unequivocal rejection of the Holy See’s specious claim that while the Vatican City has a hallowed place in the international community (for example, as a non-member permanent observer at the UN), it is utterly impotent over the workings of the millions of institutions worldwide operating in the Catholic Church’s name.
Recognizing that subordinates of Catholic religious orders are, by canon law, “bound by obedience to the Pope,” the committee rejected the Holy See’s claim of impotence. By ratifying the convention, the committee contended, the Holy See committed itself to implementing the convention “not only on the territory of the Vatican City State but also as the supreme power of the Catholic Church through individuals and institutions placed under its authority.”
The report left no doubt about the committee’s lack of faith in the Holy See’s efforts so far to come to terms with the decades-long epidemic of child sex abuse by Catholic clerics worldwide. “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,” wrote the committee.
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Its recommendations were unequivocal: immediate removal of all known and suspected child sexual abusers; referral of cases to law enforcement; sharing archives that can be used to hold abusers, enablers, and concealers accountable; amending canon law to make child sexual abuse an actual crime; establishing rules for mandatory reporting; providing justice, healing, and compensation to victims; and fighting to extend statutes of limitations on child sex abuse instead of lobbying against them.
But the UN panel did not stop there. It refused to cede the moral high ground, to stop at the doctrinal door. It unflinchingly called the Holy See to account not only for failing to protect the rights of children sexually abused by priests, but for egregiously failing to recognize, much less protect, the health and rights of girls. One by one, it tackled issues in the context of global justice, not religious teachings.
Taking another skeleton out of the clerical closet, the committee advocated that the Holy See “assess the number of children born of Catholic priests, find out who they are and take all the necessary measures to ensure the rights of these children to know and to be cared for by their fathers, as appropriate.” The committee also argued for putting an end to the despicable bargain many mothers seeking child support had to strike with the church—signing a confidentiality agreement in exchange for financial help.
The committee expressed “deepest concern” over the church’s treatment of a 9-year-old girl in Brazil who was raped by her step-father and then had a life-saving abortion. Her abortion brought on the excommunication of her mother and the doctor who performed the procedure, a sanction, the committee noted, “later approved by the head of the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation of Bishops.”
Recognizing the enormous risks to women’s health and lives worldwide as a result of the church’s Ethical and Religious Directives for its health-care facilities, which forbid direct abortion under any conditions at all, the committee urged the Holy See “to review its position on abortion and … amend Canon 1398 relating to abortion with a view to identifying circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.”
The committee zeroed in on “the negative consequences of the Holy See’s position and practices of denying adolescents access to contraception, as well as to sexual and reproductive health and information.” Among those consequences they listed are early and unwanted pregnancies, high morbidity and mortality for adolescent girls from clandestine abortions, and increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV and AIDS.
In a tone rarely if ever directed at members of the Catholic hierarchy in polite conversation, the committee made a host of eye-popping recommendations. It advised the Holy See to overcome “barriers and taboos” surrounding adolescent sexuality that impede access to sexual and reproductive health information, contraceptives, and means to prevent HIV and STDs; guarantee consideration of the “best interest of pregnant teenagers”; and, most boldly, ensure that adolescent “sexual and reproductive health education be part of the mandatory curriculum of Catholic schools … with special attention to preventing early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.”
Relentlessly pressing on, the committee advocated for accountability, justice, and redress for the young girls who suffered “inhuman, cruel and degrading treatment as well as physical and sexual abuse” in the notorious Catholic-run Magdalene Laundries in Ireland and similar institutions in other locations. It raised the issue of “the devastating impact of domestic violence on children,” violence that “often has a gender component.” While commending the Holy See for committing “to promoting the dignity of women and girls,” it chastised them for failing, at the 2013 Commission on the Status of Women, to support a document proposing that “religion, custom or tradition should not serve as an excuse for states to evade their obligations to protect women and girls from violence.”
The report represents a shocking rebuke of the Catholic hierarchy’s internal machinations and its application of its doctrinal system to a secular world. Not surprisingly, it almost instantly engendered an outcry of “anti-Catholic” accusations. In its terse reply issued right after the report came out, the Holy See voiced “regret to see in some points of the Concluding Observations an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of the human person and in the exercise of religious freedom.” Furthermore, it said, “the Holy See reiterates its commitment to defending and protecting the rights of the child, in line with the principles promoted by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and according to the moral and religious values offered by Catholic doctrine.”
And therein lies the rub. This is an institution that has succeeded for centuries in straddling the line between secular and spiritual. Today, it regularly shifts sides to suit its purposes—to the secular side, claiming its seat at the UN, when it wants to exercise power on the world stage; to the spiritual side, claiming religious freedom, when it doesn’t want to abide by the world’s civil laws, criminal laws, or international norms.
In a sense, with this report, the UN Committee on the Rights of Children threw down a gauntlet. It has called the Catholic Church on its dual identity and asked it to choose. Some will think that’s unfair. I don’t. Any church can hold any beliefs it chooses, preach those beliefs to its followers, while remaining subject to civil and criminal laws. But no church should be able to hold itself out as also being a sovereign state that is above the law, with the divine right to impose its doctrines and dogmas on everyone.
The UN committee blew the whistle. It’s loud. It’s ear-piercing. And it’s about time.