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Pope-ing the question

Pope-ing the question
On 5 February 2014, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child lambasted the Vatican church for failing to accept the scale of clerical sex abuse prevalent in Catholic churches world over. According to the report, ‘The committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of 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’. Such crimes are in direct contravention of U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty the Vatican ratified in 1990.

In a scathing report, the watchdog strongly urged the Holy See to ‘remove all known and suspected child abusers’ and those bishops who have covered up such crimes. A further demand was made to open up its archives on abusers and turn those cases over to local law enforcement agencies. Probably the most troublesome finding for the Holy See is the committee’s intense concern over the manner in which allegations of child sex abuse have been handled, especially with regards to its ‘code of silence’ that has long kept victims silent.

The report says, ‘the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests, as observed by several national commissions of inquiry.’ Besides this, the committee has asked the Vatican to ensure that the expert commission set up by Pope Francis last year will independently investigate all cases of child sex abuse and the manner in which such cases were handled by the Catholic hierarchy. However, even after a year later, no concrete details have emerged over the scope and makeup of this commission. More importantly, no bishop has been sanctioned for having covered up for abusive priests. Such reports have a set a dark cloud around the Catholic community.

The report, formulated by 18-member panel, made up of sociologists, various academic and child development specialists from around the world, went beyond the brief of child sex abuse and took on Catholic teachings over homosexuality, contraception and abortion.  Unfortunately, according to columnist Paul Valley, in the New York Times, such attacks have only give more fodder to the Church and their apologists, on the basis that the committee violated safeguards on religious freedom in the UN’s own Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The focus on child abuse was lost and instead Vatican apologists went on tweet about how the church was ambushed by a ‘kangaroo court’.

A Vatican statement read, ‘The Holy See does … regret to see in some points of the concluding observations an attempt to interfere with Catholic church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom’.  In addition to this, it released a statement, which said, ‘The Holy See reiterates its commitment to defending and protecting the rights of the child, in line with the principles promoted by the convention on the rights of the child and according to the moral and religious values offered by Catholic doctrine’.

Child sex abuse and the church

Sexual abuse of children were discussed in whispered voices and barely reached the public domain till the 1970s and it was only by ‘80s did initial complaints of the crime fist came to light in Canada and the United States.  There have been many cases that were reported over the decades mentioned above. It was early in 2002, with the sex abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese that created a crisis of sorts in the Catholic community. The Boston Globe covered a series of criminal prosecutions of five Roman Catholic priests, which ultimately led to their conviction and sentencing.  For their coverage on the issue, the Boston Globe received a Pulitzer Prize for national service. Following these revelations, many victims around the country came forward to present their cases. The key aspect to this story was the pattern of sexual abuse and cover-up in a large number of dioceses around the country.

The fact which caused great aggravation amongst the community was that these Catholic bishops, to whom such complaints’ were sent, kept these crimes a secret and instead the diocese reassigned these molesters/abusers to other parishes around the country. The event had a cascading impact on the Catholic community world over. There were two major reports that came out in 2009, where allegations of serious abuse, cover ups and hierarchical failures over cases of pedophilia came to the fore.

However the biggest incident to hit the Church was allegations of sexual abuse of minors by the founding father of the Legion of Christ order, Reverend Marcial Maciel Degollado. The priest was earlier a favourite of the Vatican because the order made sizable financial donation to the church and drew many youngsters to the vocation. For decades the Vatican denied allegations by various seminarians of sexual abuse by Father Maciel, so much so that Pope John Paul II publicly backed him. However, after Pope John Paul II passed away in 2006, a Vatican investigation led by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, found him guilty of sexually abusing seminarians as young as 12. Strangely, without the law taking its own course, Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 ordered Father Maciel to retire to a life of ‘prayer and penitence’.  Seven more priests from the order are under investigation for sexual abuse of minors. Father Maciel died in 2008.

Key questions for the Vatican


In 2001 when the first cases of sexual abuse of minors came to the fore the Vatican issued guidelines to all senior clergy (bishops) that all cases should be directed to Rome. Up until then, all cases were handled by the leading church where these incidents are said to have occurred. However, in 2010, with a decade-long pressure mounting against the Vatican, new guidelines were issued that if there were suspected cases of abuse, then church authorities should report it to local police.

During the landmark hearing conducted by the UN in Geneva, on 16 January, 2014, where the Vatican was represented by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See  maintained a line that they were distinct from a global Catholic church and that it had little jurisdiction in countries beyond the city state.

However, according to Paul Valley’s opinion piece in The New York Times, ‘Their (Vatican church) argument, that they only have spiritual rather than juridical authority over the rest of the church, is deeply unconvincing to most outsiders. Religious superiors are bound by an oath of obedience to the pope, so there is a clear line of institutional accountability, and others in the Roman Curia know that’.

‘Priests are citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country’, said Archbishop Tomasi. When questioned about an instance in 2001, where a senior Vatican official praised French bishop Pierre Pican for not reporting a case of rape against a boy, the former sex crimes prosecutor for the Vatican, Charles Scicluna, part of the delegation in Geneva and auxiliary bishop of Malta, admitted that this practice had to change, though the case was more than a decade old. ‘The Holy See gets it. Let’s not say ‘too late’ or not. There are certain things that need to be done differently. It is not a policy of the Holy See to encourage cover-ups’, he said.

In response to this answer, Pam Spees, representative of the US-based advocacy group, Centre of Constitutional Rights, said, ‘The Vatican attempted to relegate the issue to the past and claim it is a new era, that they now ‘get it’, but they continue to refuse to turn over records for prosecution, punish higher-ups that covered up the crimes, or provide any real evidence that they are now putting the safety of children above the reputation of the Church’.  In December last year, the Vatican had refused to provide detailed information requested by the UN on information of abuse cases in the past and how they were handled, citing confidentiality.  Thereby, the question of institutional accountability does come to the fore. However, the Vatican delegation did admit that the process of handling these cases was ‘a work in progress’ and that ‘more transparency and accountability (is needed) on the local level’.

However, there seems to be some hope on this front, when Pope Benedict XVI took a hard line on this issue and during the last two years of his papacy, the number of offenders dismissed from priesthood had doubled to 400. In fact in Britain, a committee was set up by Lord Nolan (2001), former chairman of the country’s Committee on Standards in Public Life,  established guidelines that have become the norm for child protection world over. A key recommendation was that there should be background checks on priests before they were accepted into any parish. However, with the Vatican unable to establish transparency, serious doubts continue to linger over the question of institutional accountability.  The UN has literally posed a few popping questions to the Papacy.

(Key inputs from The Guardian, Huffington Post, New York Times and BBC)
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