HOLY SEE: UN Panel on Torture Presses Vatican Envoy on Abuse

[6 May 2014] - The Vatican faced sharp questioning by a United Nations panel on Monday about whether it failed to abide by an international treaty against torture in its response to the sexual abuse of children by priests.

In the hearing, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative in Geneva, immediately found himself at odds with members of the panel, the Committee Against Torture, over the Holy See’s view that it is responsible for applying the treaty only to the few hundred inhabitants of the Vatican City state.

Another United Nations panel, on the rights of children, rejected that argument in February, saying that the Vatican’s responsibility for carrying out human rights treaties extended to every person and institution under the Roman Catholic Church’s authority around the world. The children’s rights committee accused the church of putting its reputation and interests ahead of those of children.

If the Committee Against Torture reaches a similar conclusion, its report could undermine one of the main obstacles to holding the church accountable for clerical sexual abuse, victims’ advocates say.

Felice D. Gaer, the vice chairwoman of the committee, said the convention against torture was signed by the Holy See, which represents more than just the Vatican City state. Never before, she said, had a party to the convention tried to limit its application to just one part of itself.

What the committee wanted, Ms. Gaer told the archbishop, “is simply that you show to us that as a party to the convention, you have a system in place to prohibit torture and ill treatment as defined by the convention, when it is perpetrated or acquiesced to by anyone under the effective control of the officials of the Holy See and the institutions that operate in the Vatican City state.”

Pope Francis announced the formation of a commission in December to advise on combating sexual abuse. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, briefing journalists over the weekend, said the panel would issue clear and effective protocols that would hold accountable any senior clerics or officials who did not report suspected abuse.

Victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy are skeptical of these initiatives.

“The Holy See has consistently sidestepped real accountability and serious reform,” the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, acting on behalf of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said in a submission to the United Nations panel. It noted that a set of guidelines issued by bishops in Italy this year and approved by the Vatican “explicitly states they are not required to inform law enforcement authorities if they suspect a child has been sexually assaulted.”

“Pope Francis and the bishops are not taking action that would protect children,” Barbara Blaine, president of the survivors network, told journalists in Geneva on Friday, calling at a minimum for removal of priests involved in abuse. “These simple acts would protect hundreds of thousands of children across the world.”

The Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said last week that moves to link the child abuse scandal to the issue of torture were a “deceptive and forced” effort by nongovernmental organisations “with a strong ideological character.” He warned that United Nations conventions risked losing their authority and “being reduced to tools of ideological pressure.”

Appearing before the panel, Archbishop Tomasi took a different position, acknowledging the treaty as “a valid and suitable instrument for fighting against acts that constitute a serious offence against the dignity of the human person” and describing sexual abuse as a global problem that must be addressed.

“There has been a stabilisation and decline in cases of pedophilia,” he told the panel. “The church has to do its own cleaning of the house, and it has been doing it for the past 10 years.”

The panel on children’s rights drew criticism from the Vatican and elsewhere when its report went beyond sexual abuse and took the church to task for its teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, among other matters. By contrast, Ms. Gaer said that church doctrine was not an important consideration for the panel on torture.

But panel members firmly pursued the issue of accountability for sexual abuse over two hours of tough questioning on Monday. Ms. Gaer asked how many times church officials had reported allegations of abuse to civilian authorities, pressing Archbishop Tomasi to provide details when the hearing resumes on Tuesday on the number of such cases and where they occurred.

The panel “made clear these acts fall well within the definition of torture and that the actions required to prevent, punish and redress torture haven’t been addressed,” Katherine Gallagher, a senior staff lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said after the hearing.

Although the panel’s report will not be legally binding, its conclusions could have a broad impact if they are accepted by national courts. Laws in many countries impose short statutes of limitations on sex crimes, but clerical abuse cases have often been covered up or gone unreported for years; by the time they come to light, it is often too late to prosecute or sue. But under international law, there is no statute of limitations for torture.

“To recognise these as acts of torture could assist greatly in some of the statute of limitations issues victims have faced,” Ms. Gallagher said.

The committee is expected to issue its final observations and recommendations on May 23.

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