Pope Expands Sex Abuse Laws in Response to U.N. Criticisms

L'Osservatore Romano,via AP

After years of noncompliance, the Vatican is finally being taken to task by the United Nation’s Commission for the Rights of the Child about its dodgy record on child sex abuse. And it looks like Pope Francis is taking it seriously.

The Holy See was given until January to submit a detailed report to the United Nations answering very specific questions and providing confidential records and documentation about how and why Catholic dioceses moved predatory priests between them like chess pieces. And on Thursday, Pope Francis issued a “motu proprio” extending the scope of the Vatican City legal system to bolster criminal legislation against child sex abuse, possession of child pornography, and child prostitution on Vatican grounds by Vatican staff, seen as a shot across the bow to those in the Holy See who have harbored secrets of the sex abuse scandal. The extended scope of the legal system should pave the way to greater transparency and even prosecution of those who may have been the great enablers of the church’s worst sinners.

The U.N.’s request, called the “List of Issues to be Taken Up in Connection with the Consideration of the Second Periodic Report of the Holy See” outlines a series of concerns the U.N.’s child protection arm wants addressed, including requests like “please indicate whether the Holy See still label children born outside wedlock as ‘illegitimate children’ and whether it has assessed the consequences of the use of such terminology on the rights of these children.”

The commission also asks the Holy See to clarify its procedure in investigations of child sex abuse claims both regarding the recent pedophile priest scandal and the historical use of so-called Magdalene’s laundries as Catholic slave workhouses where women of ill repute were kept. These laundries, according to the U.N.'s accusations, were widely used in Europe and North America from the 18th to the 20th centuries and were still in use in Ireland until 1996. “Please indicate whether an investigation was conducted by the Holy see into the complaints of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and of subjection to force labor of girls held in Magdalene’s laundries run by Catholic Sisters in Ireland until 1996,” the report demands. The U.N. also wants a clear record on the number of babies taken from their mothers in the Magdalene’s laundries, and placed in Catholic orphanages or given for adoption.

The U.N. is also demanding that the Vatican turn over sensitive records concerning the long history of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy members. “In light of the recognition by the Holy See of sexual violence against children committed by members of the clergy, brothers and nuns in numerous countries around the world, and given the scale of the abuses, please provide detailed information on all cases of child sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy, brothers and nuns brought to the attention of the Holy See over the reporting period.” The U.N. wants concrete proof of punitive action against the clergy and whether policy changes have been implemented.

If the Holy See fails to comply with the United Nations’ requests, they risk sanctions or even losing their coveted place as an observer-state on the commission. The observer state status means that the Vatican as a city-state can engage in debate that affects global policies adopted by the U.N., including weighing in on birth control and abortion. The Vatican became a signatory on the Commission for the Rights of the Child in part to push for the recognition that a child’s life begins at conception, which reinforces their anti-abortion stance.

The Vatican did not respond when asked specifically for a comment on the U.N.'s report, but Massimo DeGregori, a priest with the Holy See’s diplomatic corps in Geneva, told Religion News Service that the U.N. is being manipulated by enemies of the church. “While we don’t deny the gravity (of child sex abuse), someone is trying to take advantage of the U.N. committee procedure,” he said.

Rights groups for victims of predatory priests have welcomed the U.N. report, but they are not optimistic that the Holy See will comply, even in light of the pope’s new Vatican City legislation. The Vatican has answered requests before, but this is the first time any international body has asked for full disclosure and the turning over of highly confidential records. The Vatican is expected to send representatives to testify before the U.N. panel in January 2014. “These high-ranking church officials should answer for their wrongdoing,” says Barbara Dorris of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests). “That’s how this scandal will finally begin to end—when those who help cause it and can stop it face the consequences if they don’t.”