UN slams Vatican's cover-up of sex abusers, posing dilemma for Pope Francis

A UN committee of experts urged the Catholic Church to turn over pedophile priests. Pope Francis's papacy could be tested by the fallout from a scathing report.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Pope Francis listens to his speech being translated, during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Wednesday. A UN human rights committee denounced the Vatican on Wednesday for 'systematically' adopting policies that allowed priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children over decades.

The Vatican should immediately turn over to authorities all suspected pedophile priests and stop protecting them, a UN committee said Wednesday in a scathing report on child abuse in the Catholic Church, which has for decades tried to cover up abuses by its clergy. 

The church hierarchy should urgently “remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment," cooperate with law enforcement agencies around the world, and open up its files to outside scrutiny, the committee said.

In one of the most damning critiques ever delivered of the Catholic Church’s shielding of predatory clergy, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said that “tens of thousands of children worldwide” had been raped or molested in the past and that sexual abuse continues today.

The sex-abuse scandals have besmirched the image of the Catholic Church; some dioceses have had to pay tens of millions of dollars in compensation to victims and their families. The strongly worded accusations were contained in a report that the UN committee released after questioning senior Vatican officials in Geneva.

In its report, the UN committee of independent experts accused the Catholic Church of humiliating victims, paying them off in order to buy their silence, and failing to refer abusive clergy to the police.

The Holy See had “not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed...and has adopted policies and practises which have led to the continuation of the abuse by, and the impunity of, the perpetrators,” the committee said. 

Abusive priests in many countries had simply been moved from one diocese to another, allowing “many priests to remain in contact with children and to continue to abuse them.”

As a result, many children were still at “high risk” of being sexually molested, with “dozens of child sexual offenders reported to be still in contact with children.”

Critical response

The Vatican responded to the report with a brief, terse statement, saying only that it “took note” of the recommendations and would submit them to “a thorough study and examination.”

But the Vatican's permanent observer to the UN took a much more critical tone, accusing the committee of “distorting” the facts and ignoring steps that the Holy See had taken to improve the protection of children.

Monsignor Silvano Tomasi, who was one of the officials questioned by the committee on Jan 16, told Vatican Radio that the landmark report "almost appears to have been prepared before the meeting." 

A Vatican official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to talk to the media, told the Monitor that the UN report was ideologically motivated and “spiteful” towards the Church.

“Things have changed drastically and most dioceses now have new rules” for dealing with priests suspected of molesting children, he says. “The progress made has been enormous. You are never going to root out this sort of thing totally, but we have put in best practices.”

End of honeymoon?

The highly critical UN report will make uncomfortable reading for Pope Francis, who next month marks his first year in office.

Since his election last March, he has received a rapturous reception from millions of young Catholics; his image has appeared on the covers of TIME and Rolling Stone magazines.

But the honeymoon period may now be ending and the extent to which he addresses the sex abuse scandals is likely to be a key test of his papacy.

Barbara Blaine, the president of the US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), doubted whether Pope Francis would make the issue a priority.

“The quickest way to prevent child sexual violence by Catholic clerics is for Pope Francis to publicly remove all offenders from ministry and harshly punish their colleagues and supervisors who enabled their crimes,” she said in a statement.

After decades of brushing the issue under the carpet, the Vatican should take the opportunity to act, said Katherine Gallagher, a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which presented evidence to the UN committee.

“This day has been a long time coming, but the international community is finally holding the Vatican accountable for its role in enabling and perpetuating sexual violence in the Church," she said in a statement, adding that the world would be watching to see if the Vatican would end impunity for abusers. 

Treaty obligations

The committee complained that the Catholic hierarchy, including at “the highest levels of the Holy See,” had refused to cooperate with judicial authorities and national commissions of inquiry.

It said the Holy See should initiate a series of reforms to meet its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it signed in 1990.

Campaign groups accused the Vatican of being complicit in a “massive” scale of abuse.

The Vatican “continues to do everything in its power to shield abusing clerics from justice and keep their abuses secret,” says Keith Porteous Wood, the executive director of the UK’s National Secular Society, which also gave evidence to the UN committee.

“Pope Francis has already missed opportunities to assert his authority to reverse the Church’s damaging policies over clerical abuse and unless he responds positively and quickly to the demands of the committee, he risks history judging his whole papacy a failure.”

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