The Vatican is readying itself for another battering over abuse from the United Nations — this time from its committee against torture. But the difference is that, when the Holy See goes to Geneva on Monday and Tuesday to present its periodic report and face a grilling from rapporteurs, it will be better prepared than in January. Then radical NGOs convinced the UN committee on children’s rights to ignore the Holy See’s evidence on abuse while challenging church teaching on sexuality and abortion (see CV Comment here and here). They will do the same again this week, but the Vatican has seen it coming.
On that occasion, it was the Committee on the Convention of the Rights of the Child or CRC; this time it is the Committee on the Convention Against Torture (CAT), which was signed by the Holy See in 2002. Just as in January, the Holy See is voluntarily going before the committee — as it is bound to, every four years, just as all other 155 governments who have signed it must — to report on the implementation of the convention. Yet as in January, it will find itself suddenly having to answer questions on abortion and homosexuality which were never considered part of the treaty back in 2002 – – as well as (bizarrely) questions on clerical sex abuse of minors.
Given that CAT defines torture as
Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
it is easy to see why the Holy See was keen to sign the Convention, which seeks to eradicate torture from all situations where force is deployed, including war, public emergency, terrorist acts and violent crime. It is also easy to see how shocked it is to find this same definition driving an ideologically driven attack on the Church over sexual abuse of minors, pro-life legislation, restricting marriage to a man and a woman, and even corporal punishment.
A quick glance (here: select ‘Holy See’) at the reports submitted by “civil society organizations” explains why. They are the same four NGOs whose arguments and evidence were deployed by the CRC committee in January against the Vatican: the clerical abuse survivors’ group SNAP; the Center for Reproductive Rights (which “uses the law to advance reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right”); the Global Initiative to End Corporal Punishment; and the Child’s Rights Network or CRIN, which, as we pointed out in January, and as its own website makes clear, regards religious institutions as arcane, unaccountable, and with entrenched power structures which pose a risk to minors.
The NGOs are arguing that the CAT covers abortion, reproductive rights, clerical sex abuse of minors and corporal punishment, and that the Holy See should be held to account over these, as if it were a rogue nation. The CAT committee has already demonstrated that it agrees with this interpretation of the convention, in the past telling Ireland, Poland, Nicaragua, and Bolivia that prohibitions on abortion for disability, rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother are considered torture under the treaty.
Who is on the committee? Just as Veronica Yates, CRIN’s director, sits on the executive committee of the CRC’s ‘NGO Group’, the links between the CAT committee and the mindset of the ‘reproductive rights’ NGOs are everywhere. The CAT chair, Claudio Grossman, is a key player in a movement to use the law to embed the goals of the 1994 population conference in Cairo. He hosted a conference “to develop strategies for advancing reproductive rights” which considered how religious groups “deny women’s human rights”, and gave financial backing to a campaign backing gay marriage. The vice-chair, Felice Gaer, a member of the US delegation to the Beijing conference on women in 1995, describes herself as “fiercely pro-choice” … and so on.
Ready this time
In advance of Monday’s hearing, the Vatican and others have this time been at least getting themselves ready for both the attack in Geneva and the media sandstorm. The Vatican spokesman, Father Lombardi, said Friday that he hoped the UN committee would resist pressure from nongovernmental organizations “with a strong ideological character” noting that to include sexual abuse of minors in a discussion about torture will strike any observer as bizarre (or, as he put it: “The extent to which this is deceptive and forced is clear to any unbiased observer”.)
Learning from the experience in January, three Catholic organizations have also submitted evidence to the Committee, among them Catholic Voices USA, whose ‘shadow report’ — attacking what it calls the ‘new intolerance’ — is here. (One of the CV USA members, Ashley McGuire, will also be giving oral evidence in Geneva, which begins by pointing out how “surreal” it is to be defending the Holy See’s current record on torture.) The Atlanta-based Solidarity Center for Law and Justice has also submitted a shadow report (here) signed by more than 50 pro-life and pro-family organizations which criticizes the way the UN and CAT are exceeding their mandate, and violating religious freedom by seeking to impose a radical agenda. There is also a joint submission by church bodies including the Jesuit Refugee Service and the International Catholic Migration Commission, detailing the Church’s work across the world in combatting torture and other forms of cruel or degrading punishment.
Put together, these submissions add up to a strong indictment of the way the UN committee appears to want to overlook the huge good done by the Church worldwide in preventing violence and tending to its victims, in order to lead a sectarian ideological attack on moral teachings which offend the committee’s members. It won’t just be the Church watching carefully to see if the UN committee acknowledges or ignores this evidence in its own report expected 23 May, on the eve of Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land. A repeat of the February fiasco risks doing the UN serious damage.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative (“permanent observer”) at the UN, has been making clear what he believes lies behind this use of the UN to attack the Church:
On the one hand, you have the perspective of the Christian Tradition, upholding the inviolable dignity of the person, endowed with free will, to be exercised in conformity with right reason, a relational being. On the other hand, you have the individualist perspective where self-centered autonomy, the right to “do what I want,” is given pride of place. In this context, the common mantra is to attempt to make “rights” out of choices and behaviors that actually contradict other, more basic, human rights. Given the disparity between these two approaches, one can understand the friction that arises when they intersect, especially when dealing with human rights and ethical issues.
Putting these two considerations into the context of the U.N. system, then, it becomes clearer how powerful players, be they state members or private NGOs, with their vast resources and political pressure, can influence and shape the interpretation of international conventions and policy. Such a “soft-law” approach becomes a very effective instrument to impose ideologies upon other states.
For some states, particularly those which may rely upon humanitarian assistance or economic aid, the option is only to acquiesce to the pressure, lest it bring sanctions or other negative effects upon their people. In regard to the Holy See, it is not a question of economic or political marginalization, but what some people would like to achieve: to silence the voice of the Church.
Meanwhile, two dates coming up soon ensure that the Vatican-UN relationship will continue to be in the spotlight. First, Archbishop Tomasi says that the Holy See is “very close to presenting its response to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, perhaps within the week”. Second, on 10 May, Pope Francis will address heads of UN agencies at the Vatican.
Six charges and their rebuttal
1. Vatican officials’ insistence on a distinction between the Holy See, with jurisdiction over the Vatican City state alone, and the Catholic Church worldwide, is hairsplitting legalism.
The Holy See has legal responsibility in two different ways. It has exclusive judicial and legal jurisdiction over the territory of the Vatican City State (SVC), just as the state of a nation does. Second, it has spiritual authority over those who voluntarily adhere to the Catholic faith, recognizing certain obligations and rights over them through the Code of Canon Law. But apart from the tiny number who live in the SCV, Catholics are citizens of their own states, which have full jurisdiction over them. The Holy See adheres to international law, which means it respects the sovereignty and jurisdiction of other nations. The distinction is a vital element of international law. CAT provisions have been incorporated into Vatican City State law in force across its territory, in order to prevent and punish, if the need arises, any form of torture.
2. The structure of the Catholic Church is such that children are left vulnerable to abuse and thus promotes torture and other criminal acts prohibited by the CAT.
The data presented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the legal measures adopted by the Holy See on a national level (i.e. for Vatican City State), as well as moral advice and guidelines for bishops, offer clear evidence that concrete results have been achieved in the significant reduction of abuse cases. Clearly, while civil authorities have the right and the duty to investigate and punish individuals for abuse carried out against minors or others, regardless of who the guilty party is, the Church exercises its spiritual authority through its own internal law that provides for a different kind of punishment. This way, priests who are found guilty are not only punished by the civil authorities that have criminal jurisdiction, but by the Church as well (normally by laicizing them). It would be useful if other institutions or Governments would publish their statistics.
3. The Church’s hierarchical and male-dominated structure is archaic and encourages the abuse of minors. “Hundreds of thousands of children have been abused,” but the Catholic Church has done nothing to introduce a series of checks and balances.
Abuse of minors is a worldwide problem. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in 2002 (the most recent data available), around 150 million girls and 73 million children under the age of 18 fell victim to violence or sexual exploitation. The 2006 UN Report on Violence Against Children edited by the Independent Expert for the United Nations, Sérgio Pinheiro, estimated that between 500 million and one and a half billion children and adolescents had suffered sexual abuse. The 2008 World Congress III Against the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Rio de Janeiro (2008) – after the ones held in Stockholm and Yokohama – revealed that 150 million young girls and approximately 75 million minors under the age of 18 were victims of forced sex or sexual violence, suffering either commercial or non-commercial sexual exploitation.
Almost all violent incidents take place within the family, which is why the real number of abuse cases and cases of violence remains uncertain. Outside the family, perpetrators include public and civil officials such as teachers and social workers, magistrates and legislators and regrettably also religious representatives. The claim that the Church’s hierarchical structure is some kind of “incubator” for abusive clergy is entirely false, and contradicted by all available evidence. Of all the religious denominations, the Catholic Church is the one with the lowest percentage of sex offenders among its clergy. The Holy See has exercised its spiritual and moral jurisdiction in the Catholic Church through the implementation of numerous measures, including speeding up the canonical process for the removal of abusive priests, calling on all bishops’ conferences to put in place stringent guidelines to ensure allegations are swiftly and properly dealt with (which in most countries means mandatory reporting to civil authorities) and recently through the establishment of a special commission for the protection of children. The Holy See urges local civil authorities to prosecute those who have committed such offences.
4. By forbidding abortion and artificial contraception the Church is a cause of physical and psychological torture. The Holy See therefore needs to change the laws preventing these practices, which some consider essential rights or freedoms.
The Holy See’s goal is to prevent children from being tortured or killed before birth, as is stipulated in the Convention. For example, in Canada, 622 living babies were delivered after failed abortion attempts, between 2000 and 2001. Some 66 such cases were registered in the UK in 2005. Some methods of late-term abortions constitute forms of torture, particularly in the case of dilation and evacuation, where “the foetus, still alive, is dismembered to be pulled out of the womb in pieces.”
Freedom of expression and of belief are a fundamental right and any attempt to dictate laws to the Holy See, asking it to change its convictions, is a direct violation of this right. Any behaviour that respects natural law and is freely chosen by the faithful cannot be interpreted as measures that limit others’ freedom. The way of life the Holy See proposes is clearly in accordance with divine revelation and natural law but in no way does it coercively force or impose its convictions on individuals who do not freely wish to accept them.
5. The Holy See should collaborate with local authorities and open its archives to all. The Church continues to make promises and excuses while the abuse continues and the code of silence remains unbroken.
The statistics presented by the Holy See to the CRC in January point to a dramatic reduction in the number of new abuse cases and offer clear proof of the efficiency of the measures taken by the Holy See. If someone is obstructing the course of justice, then the competent civil authority has a duty to intervene. The Holy See encourages this procedure as it is linked to national sovereignty and is in line with international law. As Pope Francis said recently, “The Catholic Church is possibly the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No one else has done more. Yet the church is the only one to be attacked.”
6. The Holy See moves priests around in order to protect their reputation but in so doing gives them the chance to commit further abuse. Furthermore, the Holy See does not have a clear policy regarding remuneration or compensation for abuse victims.
As things currently stand, a person employed by the Church who is rightly suspected of abusing minors is immediately suspended and can have no further contact with minors. In the past, it was widely thought that the decision should be left up to professionals such as psychiatrists or psychologists. They could determine whether a person was “cured” and could resume working as normal. Clerics cannot be blamed for following a procedure that was considered to be the best at the time. This was common practice in many countries throughout the 1970s-90s, and was considered the best practice at the time — and was applied equally to drug addicts, sexually deviant priests and others. The experts however got it wrong; too often, there was no “cure”.
As far as victim compensation is concerned, the US is a clear example. Bearing in mind that there were an estimated 10,667 abuse cases recorded in the United States between 1950 and 2002 — and not hundreds of thousands as some have claimed — the Catholic Church in the US paid 572,5 million dollars in legal and related expenses, plus 1.3 billion dollars in compensation to victims, to date (2008).
Dioceses are continuing payments in various countries where cases of abuse by members of the clergy have been recorded. The Holy See encourages local Churches to make victims a priority and to respond adequately to their needs. The commission set up by Pope Francis concluded its first meeting on Friday promising “to propose initiatives to encourage local responsibility around the world and the mutual sharing of “best practices” for the protection of all minors, including programs for training, education, formation, and responses to abuse.” They also pledged greater accountability for bishops and others involved in covering up or failing to take action.