GENEVA - The United Nations denounced the Vatican on Wednesday for failing to stamp out child abuse and allowing systematic cover-ups, calling on the Church to remove clergy suspected of raping or molesting children.
Meanwhile, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations accused the UN on Wednesday of distorting facts in its damning report which denounced the Church for failing to stamp out child abuse.
The report failed to take into account the fact that the Vatican had made “a series of changes for the protection of children”, and its efforts at reform were “facts, evidence, which cannot be distorted,” Silvano Tomasi said in an interview with Vatican Radio.
In an unprecedented report for a UN body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child slammed the Vatican for failing to live up to repeated pledges to put its house in order, and said all clergy and lay employees suspected of abuse must be turned over to the police.
“The committee expresses serious concern that in dealing with child victims of different forms of abuse, the Holy See has systematically placed preservation of the reputation of the Church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims,” it said.
It urged the Vatican to “immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment and refer the matter to the relevant law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution purposes”. Committee head Kirsten Sandberg said that despite the Vatican’s pledges to adopt a zero tolerance approach, it was in clear breach of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. “The simple answer is yes, they are in breach of the Convention as up to now, because they haven’t done all the things that they should have done,” Sandberg told reporters.
The report said the Vatican had failed to acknowledge the extent of abuse, nor taken necessary measures to protect children, and had allowed perpetrators to continue with impunity. It blasted the transfer of abusers to new parishes within countries, and even across borders, in an attempt to cover up their crimes and remove them from the clutches of justice.
In a terse response, the Vatican said it “took note” of the report, but criticised as doctrinal interference parts of the report that questioned its stance on contraception and abortion.
As well as general comments on the risks to girls of early pregnancy and clandestine abortions, the committee spotlighted the case of a nine-year-old Brazilian who was raped by her stepfather, and whose mother and doctor where excommunicated after she had a termination.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) hailed the report.
“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,” SNAP said. “But like his predecessors, he has refused to take even tiny steps in this direction.”
“Now it’s up to secular officials to follow the UN’s lead and step in to safeguard the vulnerable because Catholic officials are either incapable or unwilling to do so,” it added.
The report followed a landmark January hearing during which the 18 independent human rights experts from around the globe who make up the committee grilled senior Church officials.
Like other signatories of the UN child rights convention, the Vatican agrees to be scrutinised by the panel. Its last appearance was in 1995, before the abuse issue burst into the spotlight.
The committee criticised the Church for dealing with paedophile priests behind closed doors, allowing “the vast majority of abusers and almost all those who concealed child sexual abuse to escape judicial proceedings in states where abuses were committed”.
It also denounced the “code of silence” imposed on clergy under threat of excommunication, saying that as a result cases of abuse where hardly ever reported to national law enforcement authorities.
Church whistleblowers had been “ostracised, demoted and fired”, while priests who remained silent were even congratulated, and victims who were compensated were bound by confidentiality clauses, it said.
Benedict XVI, pontiff from 2005 to 2013, was the first pope to apologise to abuse victims and call for zero tolerance, though critics said rhetoric outstripped real action.
His successor Pope Francis has said Catholics should feel “shame” for abuse and in December created a commission to investigate sex crimes, enforce prevention and care for victims.
The UN committee welcomed the move, but said it did not go far enough and that it was time for the Vatican to create an independent human rights mechanism to address abuse.
Referring to Ireland’s “Magdalene Laundries” - Church-run institutions for unmarried girls who got pregnant, which were finally closed in 1996 - the committee said the Vatican had failed to provide justice despite “slavery-like” conditions, degrading treatment, violence and sexual abuse.
It also said Church archives should be opened in order to hold accountable abusers and all those who concealed their crimes and knowingly placed offenders in contact with children. The UN committee’s recommendations are non-binding.