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U.N. Panel Assails Vatican Over Sexual Abuse by Priests

On Behalf of | Feb 5, 2014 | Clergy Sexual Abuse, Firm News |

GENEVA — A sharply critical United Nations panel accused the Vatican on Wednesday of putting its reputation and interests above those of children who had been sexually abused by priests. It called on the Vatican to immediately remove all known or suspected molesters from their posts and report them to civil authorities.

“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,” said the panel, the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

It demanded that the Vatican open its archives to identify abusers and that it hold accountable those who had concealed abuse and knowingly allowed abusers continued contact with children.

The panel’s conclusion that the church was more concerned with avoiding scandal than with protecting exploited children mirrored that of numerous other investigative bodies and victims’ advocacy groups.

The criticism came in the concluding observations of a panel that examined the Vatican’s compliance with the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child. The panel held a hearing last month that was attended by senior Vatican officials, including Bishop Charles J. Scicluna, who was the Vatican’s chief prosecutor of sexual abuse until 2012.

Kirsten Sandberg, who led the panel, said at a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday that tens of thousands of children worldwide had suffered abuse at the hands of priests. “We think it is a horrible thing that is being kept silent both by the Holy See itself and in the different local parishes,” she said.

The panel rejected the Vatican’s contention that it was responsible for following the Convention on the Rights of the Child only on the territory of the Vatican City. In ratifying the convention, it was also responsible, as the supreme power of the Catholic Church, for ensuring that it be followed by individuals and institutions placed under its authority, the United Nations experts said.

While generally critical of Vatican leadership, the report’s authors welcomed as “progressive” Pope Francis’s more welcoming view of homosexuals in the church, but said the Vatican’s past statements had contributed to the stigmatization of gays, lesbians and transgender children and adolescents. The panel also criticized the church’s approach to abortion and contraception.

The panel’s report on the Vatican’s treatment of children was its first in 14 years, but it called on the church to report back in 2017. Although its recommendations are nonbinding, Ms. Sandberg said it expected Pope Francis and the Holy See to act on them.

In a written statement from Rome, the Vatican said it would study the panel’s report, but it expressed regret that some of its conclusions “attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of the human person and in the exercise of religious freedom.” The statement apparently was referring to the panel’s comments on matters of church doctrine, such as abortion and contraception.

The panel noted the Vatican’s commitment to upholding the “inviolable” dignity of children, but pointed out that the church had relocated priests who were known child abusers to new parishes in an attempt to hide their crimes, thereby allowing them to remain in contact with children and continue their abuse. In doing so, the Vatican “still places children in many countries at high risk of sexual abuse, as dozens of child sexual offenders are reported to be still in contact with children,” it said.

The hearing last month was the first time the Vatican faced public examination by an international body. At the hearing, Bishop Scicluna said that “the Holy See gets it,” and that certain things “need to be done differently.” He argued, however, that legal action to prosecute abuse cases was the responsibility of civil authorities and not the church.

The panel disputed the assertion that the Vatican had no responsibility to police the church’s ranks. The Holy See assumed full jurisdiction over clerical child sex abuse cases within the church in 1962, the panel noted; in 2001, it assigned such cases to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a body responsible among other things for upholding discipline.

Far from cooperating with law enforcement authorities, the panel said in its report, church authorities, “including at the highest levels of the Holy See,” avoided and in some cases explicitly rejected cooperation with them. The Vatican imposed a code of silence on all clergy members, it said, and as a result, cases of abuse have hardly ever been reported to law enforcement authorities by the church.

The panel said the Vatican should make it mandatory throughout the church for all cases of sexual abuse and exploitation to be reported to law enforcement authorities. It also recommended that a commission set up by Pope Francis in December should independently investigate all cases of abuse and the church hierarchy’s response to them.

Katherine Gallagher, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, said in a statement, “The international community is finally holding the Vatican accountable for its role in enabling and perpetuating sexual violence in the church.”




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