The Vatican before the UN: nailing the myths

To judge by the headlines — Vatican faces UN grilling over sex abuse — it would easy to imagine that the Church has been hauled before a jury of international law and forced to account for some heinous crime. Yet today’s questioning in Geneva of Vatican representatives by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is a consequence of the Vatican signing in 1990 the United Nations declaration of those rights, and like all signatories, it must report to the UNCRC on its progress in implementing them.

This happens regularly, every five years; and the Holy See’s appointment today  follows those of Germany, Congo and the Yemen the past few days. To be clear: this is an appointment with a committee, not a legislative body or court, which is responsible for promoting rights enshrined in a charter which the Holy See, in its unique role as the visible international representative of the Catholic Church, voluntarily signed up to as an expression of its values.

So why the fuss? Because a number of campaigning bodies, including abuse survivors’ groups and their lawyers, are seeking to persuade the UN that the Holy See should be liable, in international law, for the abuse and historic failures to deal with it in the Church worldwide. No one today will be quizzing the Holy See about the safeguarding principles in the territory of the Vatican City, where just 31 minors live; the contention of campaign groups is that the Holy See is responsible, and therefore liable, for mishandling of abuse cases worldwide, and should make public what the survivors’ group SNAP describes as “decades of secret files on clergy sex offenders and enablers”.

Lawyers for SNAP have been attempting for years to persuade the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague that the Vatican should be forced to do this, but have failed each time. The ICC threw out the case most recently in 2011, after pointing out that international law applies to matters such as genocide or war crimes.

The Vatican’s position, quite reasonably and accurately, is that the responsibility for any historic mishandling of abuse cases, legally and morally, lies with the local diocese, which is accountable to the local law of the land. It is absurd to seek to make the Vatican liable for what it has not control over. Furthermore, the files on abuse in its possession are copies of files held locally, by dioceses; and it is for local jurisdictions — to which the local Church is accountable, like any other citizen — to determine if they should be handed over. Bishops are not agents of the pope; the Holy See is a distinct legal entity from the legal expressions of the Church worldwide (usually in the form of dioceses and trusts, according to the local law); and in the case of today’s hearing, the body concerned is a UN committee with protocols, not a body responsible for implementing laws.

This does not mean, however, that the Vatican is washing its hands of the issue. Few would disagree that the Vatican was slow to wake to the issue in the 1990s, and in some cases — notoriously, that of Father Maciel  — its inaction was reprehensible. But the Vatican’s slowness in waking up to the gravity of the issue was not the cause of the abuse, nor of its mishandling by bishops; those failures were due to the local Church’s desire to avoid scandal, or, in the majority of abuse cases from the 1950s-60s, because the abuse had never come to light. These failures in turn reflected a general tendency in society — as is evident from the cases now before the courts of ageing BBC celebrities who were ‘allowed’ to abuse over decades — to turn a blind eye.

But if the Vatican was slow to get on top of the problem in the 1990s, after the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger assumed oversight of the cases from 2001, the Vatican moved rapidly — as it has done ever since — to encourage dioceses worldwide to adopt stringent safeguarding guidelines, and to ensure that action was taken by bishops to deal with abusive priests. Ironically, the “secret files” which SNAP wants the Vatican to hand over prove the very opposite of a cover-up. The only reason the Vatican has such files is that Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) demanded that bishops send copies of them to the CDF, which could then ensure that bishops were, in fact, dealing with them.

These days, the Vatican is active and vigorous in using its authority to put the Church’s house in order worldwide. In western countries such as the UK and the US, safeguarding guidelines are second to none, and often recommended by authorities to other institutions as a model to follow. (As the BBC cases have shown, most institutions lag far behind Catholic ones in ensuring a safe environment for minors.) Elsewhere in the world, the Holy See is pressuring dioceses to implement such guidelines, even where local law and culture are indifferent to children’s welfare.

Yet SNAP and organizations such as the London-based Child Rights International Network (CRIN) continue to peddle the myth that Vatican policy is in some way responsible for abuse, or contributing to its concealment; and that persuading the Holy See to hand over its files would be some kind of achievement for children’s rights.

CRIN has assembled a report which it is using to excite press interest in the issue. Its director, Veronica Yates, claims: “Our research shows that allegations of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have been made in every corner of the world, yet the Holy See continues to harbour perpetrators of abuse, obstruct justice for victims and deny accountability.”

It is true that allegations of abuse by priests have been made across the world, but how is the Vatican responsible for such abuse? The allegation that the Holy See “harbours perpetrators” is completely unfounded (and appears nowhere in her ‘research’): if she is referring to Cardinal Bernard Law, former Archbishop of Boston, now resident in the Vatican, he was responsible for failures of oversight, not of abuse, and is not wanted by any jurisdiction. As for “obstructing justice to victims”, how can the Holy See obstruct — if it wanted to, which it certainly does not — local processes of justice against perpetrators? Again, no evidence is asserted. As for “denying accountability” this can only be asserted by resort to the entirely unpersuasive idea, rejected by the international courts, that the Vatican is legally liable for what is has no control over.

CRIN is an organization with an obviously secularist agenda: it focusses specifically on sexual violence in religious institutions, as if religious institutions — contrary to all statistical evidence — are particularly prone to abuse. And it describes religious institutions as “arcane” and having “entrenched power structures”, language which betrays hostility and prejudice.

Its report, in PDF here, reveals both its agenda and its muddled thinking. Most of it is a tedious compilation of well-known reported abuse cases around the world, in which it is deliberately never mentioned that the abuse itself took place decades ago, in order to give the impression of a runaway institution that is flouting the law. Nowhere does it describe the guidelines and procedures now in place that make the Catholic Church one of the western world’s leaders in safeguarding. And even where it cites the John Jay report, the largest ever study by any institution into abuse, commissioned by the US bishops, it reports the numbers of allegations but not the percentage figure, which showed that even when cases were not being dealt with, the rate of abuse in Catholic institutions was lower than in comparable institutions.

CRIN’s report then tries to make the case that the Holy See is responsible and liable for failures to tackle abuse, but in this it fails spectacularly. Most of that part of the report deals with the habit of shuffling priests from one diocese to another yet its own narrative concedes that this was a practice of the bishops or the religious orders involved. It then claims that the Holy See’s response to this was “contradictory”, and tries to support this by listing the positive initiatives taken by the Vatican and claiming that they are ambiguous or do not go far enough, or by claiming — quite contrary to the facts — that canon law and local civil law on this issue have been somehow in conflict.

The report only makes one attempt to demonstrate that there was some kind of Vatican-led worldwide ‘cover-up’ and that is by dragging out the old canard of Crimen Sollicitationis, the 1962 document demanding that allegations concerning sexual solicitation in the confessional be subject to confidentiality. As has often been demonstrated, this was a document dealing with a canonical crime that appeared in no civil law at the time, and which demanded confidentiality in order to encourage victims to step forward so that the issue could be dealt with.

It is best to deal with the report’s three concluding myths one by one:

Even though the Holy See has shown increasing recognition of the seriousness and scale of clerical sexual abuse of children, this has not as yet resulted in clear action to ensure that allegations of child abuse are reported to and investigated by competent civil authorities and there is no impunity for perpetrators, including of historic abuse.

All the evidence suggests otherwise. The Holy See since 2001 has acted decisively and energetically to ensure precisely this.

There are no guidelines dealing directly with ensuring the welfare of the victim and many serious cases are still dealt with by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and not sent to the civil judicial authorities.

Beyond encouraging bishops — as did Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to the UK — to attend to the welfare of victims, it is for each Church to decide how to do this. And the second allegation implies that the cases sent to the CDF are not being acted on locally; but they all are — and if they are not, the CDF demands that they be.

Whether the Vatican’s responses are about self-preservation or whether they are just being misconstrued, the outcome still highlights the Vatican’s historic inability to deal with the issue effectively. There is no transparent and decisive system with which to deal with the problem on a global scale across the entire Holy See. Transparency, in the form of full disclosure to external judicial authorities, is the bridge between intention and achievement. The Vatican should choose full disclosure of information over self-preservation.

The Vatican’s responses have been decisive and continue to be under Francis. The Vatican has had its failures in the past, but it is now vigorous in ensuring that cases are acted on by bishops, that allegations are passed immediately made to civil authorities, and that no one ever puts the interests of the institution before the welfare of the child. These guidelines have long been in place in most parts of the world, and the Catholic Church is today a safe institution. As  historic cases of abuse continue to come to light, the Church acts on them swiftly and transparently, to ensure they are investigated and all necessary action taken.

The Holy See is transparent. The guidelines it recommends are on its website. It is happy to explain itself — as it is today in Geneva. And it welcomes scrutiny of its procedures and guidelines. But it rightly refuses to accept the premise of lobbies alleging, for diverse reasons and many motives both pecuniary and ideological, some kind of Vatican-led international policy of concealment of crimes. It is a myth, and today’s hearing will hopefully nail it.

[Austen Ivereigh]

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