The UN and the Vatican: understanding what went wrong

Wednesday’s UN Report — which we criticized in a robust response and in various TV and radio interviews (a sample of which can be seen and heard at the bottom of the CV site here) — has been widely deplored, not least by those who have been stern critics of the Church’s record on abuse.Scicliuna

Our three main objections — that the report chose to ignore the obvious progress made, crassly misunderstood the nature of the Church, and sought to impose a obviously alien ideology — were endorsed by Bishop Charles Scicluna, the former Vatican point-man on abuse who was key to transforming the culture of denial in Rome, and who is described by Reuters as “the most authoritative Catholic official on the Church’s abuse crisis”.

RosicaThe same three criticisms were also later made by Fr Tom Rosica, who some consider to speak for the Vatican press office, in an interview on PBS.

Others described the Report as a missed opportunity, or warned, like the leading Vatican commentator John Allen (whose article is now behind a Boston Globe paywall), that it “may actually strengthen the hand of those still in denial in the Church on the abuse scandals by allowing them to style the UN report as all-too-familiar secular criticism driven by politics.”

The liberal Catholic press  — with the single exception of The Tablet — has been universally critical. In the US, for example, Commonweal describes it as “foolish” and “a mess”. Over at the National Catholic Reporter, a fierce critic of the Church over the abuse issue, Michael Sean Winters says “to hell with the UN”, while Fr Tom Reese wrote that the Report “is too easy to dismiss because it was poorly done”, not least because it

ignores what the Vatican has done to improve things. Pope Benedict XVI made zero tolerance the universal law of the church. That means that a priest who is involved in the abuse of a child can never function as a priest again. In the last two years of his papacy, around 400 priests were dismissed from the priesthood. In addition, local churches are to follow local laws with regard to reporting abuse to civil authorities. Benedict also ordered every episcopal conference in the world to draw up policies and procedures for handling sexual abuse cases.

LombardiVatican spokesman Fr Lombardi also made the same criticisms, in terms if anything stronger than our post. The committee members went “beyond their competence and interfered in the doctrinal and moral positions of the Catholic Church”, he said, making suggestions that reveal an “ideological vision of sexuality”. The committee’s observations, he went on, presented “serious limitations”, not least in failing to take into account the responses – both written and oral – given by representatives of the Holy See before and during the Geneva hearing on 19 January. And he said the recommendations demonstrated a lack of understanding about how the Holy See is different from other states that signed the convention.


This cannot have come from lack of knowledge, Fr Lombardi points out, because the Holy See had repeatedly explained in detail to the committee and to other UN agencies that it has direct legal jurisdiction over those who live and work in the small territory of Vatican City State; and that while the Vatican has canonical and spiritual jurisdiction over Catholics around the world, priests and bishops are subject to the laws of their own nations.

“Is this impossible to understand or do they not want to understand it?” he asked. “In both cases, one has a right to be surprised.”

Sciculuna TomasiIndeed one does. As Archbishop Tomasi, who together with Bishop Scicluna  presented that evidence in Geneva, told Vatican Radio, the Report had ignored “the clear and precise explanations that were given to the committee in the encounter that the delegation of the Holy See had with the committee three or four weeks ago.”

Fr Lombardi puts it even more strongly. The Report, he says, appears to have been “practically already written, or at least already in large part blocked out before the hearing.”

This was not just the Vatican’s impression. A common reaction on Wednesday on the part of journalists who called Catholic Voices for comment was that the UN had, indeed, ignored the Holy See’s detailed submission on 16 January. This impression was strongest among journalists who worked in Rome and were familiar with the Vatican’s strenuous efforts to transform both its own culture and that of bishops’ conferences around the world.

AllenIt was also surprising to those who were at the hearing. John Allen reported after the 16 January ‘dialogue’ that Bishop Scicluna had insisted repeatedly that the church now recognizes a “non-negotiable principle” of paramount concern for the well-being of children. And he showed how it was now invoked to assert that church officials must always cooperate fully with abuse investigations by civil law enforcement and that “no interest should obstruct the functioning of domestic law in the country” where an act of abuse has occurred, “whoever or whatever institution is involved.”

Allen’s best guess as to what the report would find? “Judging by the tone of Thursday’s exchanges, they’re likely to feature admiration for the strong commitment to reform voiced by Tomasi and Scicluna, tinged with skepticism about how consistently that commitment is applied to specific cases.”

But that’s not what happened.  “The written report doesn’t contain much reference to Tomasi and Scicluna’s testimony, and its tone is unsparingly critical – suggesting either that at least portions of it were actually drafted before the hearing took place, or that, upon reflection, the experts were less persuaded the Vatican has turned a corner than they seemed two weeks ago,” wrote Allen on Wednesday.


In one of CV’s Wednesday TV interviews, Jack Valero laid out the Vatican’s objections to the Report, and the presenter invited the chairperson of the Geneva committee to respond.

SandbergThe Holy See’s evidence was “not very detailed” and that “there is still a lot of work for the Holy See to do in that respect”, Kristen Sandberg said, shrugging her shoulders. Pressed by the presenter to justify the astonishing accusations in the Report — that the Church obstructs justice, conceals victims, puts its reputation before children — she said: “We heard during the dialogue a lot of promising things, but we have not been quite sure that they are still going on”, adding that “there were not all that many details of what had actually been done”. What we need to see now, she said, “is that this is really being done in practice”.

Given that both the policies and the concrete actions taken by the Holy See were explained in great detail in Geneva, the conclusion seems obvious: the Vatican was simply not believed. The question is why.

The first reason is that the Committee is adopting the frame of many abuse victims, who see words as a form of cover-up. “When you have something to hide, you hide behind words and are not forthcoming with facts and details because facts and details are not on your side,” Miguel Hurtado, a Spaniard sexually molested by his parish priest, told Reuters TV following the Geneva hearing. The same suspicion that it was “all just words” was expressed on Wednesday by Barbara Blaine, head of the survivors’ group SNAP, in a BBC World interview.

BlainePeople who have suffered greatly at the hands of abusive priests, whom they see as representatives of ‘the Church’, are likely to distrust whatever the institution does or says; such is the effect of trauma. But it does not explain why the committee members should adopt their view — unless there is ideology involved. 

In our backgrounder to the Geneva hearing, we warned that the committee’s agenda was being driven by a London-based organisation called the Child Rights International Network or CRIN, which on the eve of the hearing fed the media ‘research’ that made an extraordinarily muddled and hostile case against the Holy See. CRIN’s Report looks, to an extraordinary degree, like the Report which the UN Committee published after the hearing (CRIN’s report is here, the UN’s here.) Indeed, all the myths peddled in CRIN’s Report — which we responded to in our backgrounder — are reproduced in the UN’s. Given that the evidence presented by the Holy See at Geneva exploded the CRIN myths, the conclusion must be, as Fr Lombardi suggested, that the view had already been set in stone.

CRINCRIN’s agenda is an openly secularist one. Its whole purpose is to expose and combat sexual violence in religious institutions; as its own website makes clear, it regards religious institutions as arcane, unaccountable, and with entrenched power structures which pose a risk to minors. This is a long-established ideology, one dating back at least to the eighteenth century. Like all ideologies, it seeks to coerce reality into a worldview, and starts with what theologians call a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion” — a filter, or interpretative key, which automatically discounts evidence that contradicts its worldview.

As its website shows, CRIN works closely with the UN, and uses the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as a weapon in its battles. Veronica Yates, CRIN’s director, is on the executive committee of the CRC’s ‘NGO Group’.  Yates

Then there is the ideology of the 12 ‘independent experts’ who sit on the Committee of the Rights of the Child, whose resumes can be viewed by clicking on their names here. There is great expertise — legal and otherwise — on the panel, but one searches in vain for anyone with any contact with, or understanding of, Catholic institutions (although the Ecuadorian, Sara de Jesus Oviedo, cites the positive early influence of a indigenous-rights bishop). What there is a lot of is the ideology of gender — “gender equality”, “reproductive rights”, “reproductive health” — which explains the blatantly agenda-driven attempt to attack the Church on abortion and homosexuality.

The blog of the Brazilian who sits on the panel, Wanderlino Nogueira Neto, is illustrative. It promotes “generational rights”, and posts a recent paper of his whose title begins: “In a context of subalternizations, alienations, inequalities and adultocentric dominations, and therefore of the denial of human essentialities and identarian diversities … ”


The U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1989, and the committee has held regular hearings since 1991 to monitor implementation in the 193 countries (“state parties”) which have ratified it.

The Holy See was an early signatory, and in 1995 appeared at a hearing to discuss its efforts to implement the Convention. That was a time when it could properly be said that the Holy See was in denial about the issue, and bishops’ conferences were beginning to take action in the face a wave of claims and allegations in lawsuits and press reports. The action was inadequate, and the clerical sex abuse exploded in 2001-2, leading to sweeping reforms.

Yet the 1995 Committee report to the Holy See makes no mention of abuse. None at all. In a report on the Church’s implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Holy See  is rapped over the knuckles for various issues, all of which seem risibly minor compared to the issue of clerical sex abuse of minors. Why? Presumably like most institutions the UN’s CRC wasn’t, then, much aware of the issue. Which makes the fact that now, in 2014, it treats the Holy See as if it were still  1995 all the more curious.

The irony, therefore, is that the UN Child Rights’ Committee played no part in the Holy See’s own reform, yet now treats the Holy See as if it has not reformed, when it has.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what has changed since 1995 is that the UN committee has been captured by ideologies and interest groups, and that it sought to ambush the Holy See.

The Holy See’s anger and disappointment are understandable, and their decision to remain a Convention signatory a brave one. At least next time, they know what they are in for.

[Austen Ivereigh]

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