At face value, it really doesn’t seem like such a tough request. On Wednesday, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child delivered their hard-hitting final report with blunt recommendations after last month’s panel on child sex abuse with Vatican officials in Geneva. In the report, they lambasted the Vatican’s “code of secrecy” in covering up years of clerical sex abuse involving children and demanded the “immediate removal” of any and all clergy currently working in dioceses that have been accused of child abuse or child pornography. A very defensive Vatican statement said that the UN’s recommendations would be “submitted to a thorough study and examination.” Silvano Maria Tomasi, the Vatican’s observer at the UN in Geneva, later implied that the child rights group was crossing the line. “Trying to ask the Holy See to change its teachings is not negotiable,” he told Vatican Radio.
The United Nations has been trying to reign in the Vatican on the issue of the child sex abuse scandal for nearly a decade. In the first line of the report, they thanked the Vatican for submitting questions clarifying its second periodic report to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the Vatican is a signatory. But they added, “The Committee however regrets that the report was submitted with a six-year delay and that the Holy See did not respond to questions relating to the implementation of the Optional Protocol by persons and institutions placed under its legal authority.”
In January, the Vatican had punted on the issue of global responsibility, saying that individual diocese do not report directly to the Holy See in Rome and are autonomous when it comes to everything but doctrinal issues. The UN didn’t buy it. Instead, they demanded that the Holy See “makes full use of its moral authority” and make all Catholic entities under it aware of the UN’s statute on children’s rights. “The Holy See should also ensure that individuals and institutions working under its authority worldwide, including Catholic schools, play an active role” in awareness and transparency when it comes to crimes against children.
The United Nations also came down hard on the use of so-called Magdalene laundries, where “fallen women” were incarcerated and their “illegitimate children” were removed from them and given up for paid adoption to childless Catholic couples. The UN says the Magdalene laundries were still in use in Ireland until 1996 and that many of the adopted children and mothers whose babies were forcibly removed were also victims. “The committee urges the Holy See to ensure that individuals and institutions placed under its authority who have organized, participated and assisted in the removal of babies from their mothers and their transfer for remuneration or any consideration to childless couples, individuals or institutions be held accountable.” They also asked the Vatican for “full disclosure” so victims can search for their “biological filiations.”
The committee also called upon Pope Francis to ensure that the still unnamed special commission on child abuse that he set up in December “independently investigate” claims of abuse, implying that they should not rely on the infrastructure that has been used by the Vatican for decades, but to forge their own way to investigate abuse. “Due to a code of silence imposed on all members of the clergy under penalty of excommunication, cases of child sexual abuse have hardly ever been reported to the law enforcement authorities in the countries where such crimes occurred” the committee said when they delivered the report. “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 protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.”
Victims groups welcomed the UN’s report, but said the Vatican’s response was typical. “The UN panel says the Vatican should remove predator priests from ministry and report them to law enforcement. That needs study? The panel says the Vatican should endorse, not oppose, reforming secular child safety laws. That needs study?” said the Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
“Bishops don’t move predators, shun victims, rebuff prosecutors, shred evidence, intimidate witnesses, discredit whistleblowers, dodge responsibility, fabricate alibis, and blame others for clergy sex crimes and cover ups because of inadequate ‘study’,” Dorris said. “It’s always been, and remains, a lack of courage by bishops, not a lack of information, that prevents them from acting responsibly about and working hard to prevent clergy sex crimes and cover ups.”
In their trite 150-word statement, the Vatican said it respected what the UN was trying to do, but they didn’t agree with the conclusions. “The Holy See does, however, regret to see in some points of the Concluding Observations an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom.”
Barbara Blaine, president of SNAP, said it is ultimately up to the pope to intervene now. “Of course, the quickest way to prevent child sexual violence by Catholic clerics is for Pope Francis to publicly remove all offenders from ministry and harshly punish their colleagues and supervisors who enabled their crimes,” she said in a statement. “But like his predecessors, he has refused to take even tiny steps in this direction.”