U.N. panel blasts Vatican handling of clergy sex abuse

The Washington PostFebruary 5, 2014 

Vatican Pope UN Abuse

Pope Francis holds his glasses at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. A U.N. 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, and urged it to open its files on the pedophiles and the bishops who concealed their crimes. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

— A United Nations committee on Wednesday issued a scathing indictment of the Catholic Church’s handling of child sexual abuse involving clerics, releasing a report that went far beyond how the church responded to abuse allegations and included criticism of its teachings on homosexuality, gender equality and abortion.

“The Committee is concerned that the Holy See and Church-run institutions do not recognize the existence of diverse forms of families and often discriminate against children on the basis of their family situation,” the report by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child said.

Addressing the long-running clergy sexual abuse scandal, the authors wrote: “Child victims and their families have often been blamed by religious authorities, discredited and discouraged from pursuing their complaints and in some instances humiliated.”

The report demanded that the Vatican immediately turn over to criminal investigators any clerics known or suspected of abuse. It condemned a “code of silence” within the church against reporting acts of abuse to authorities, and called on the Vatican to release a mountain of documents on internal investigations of abuse cases around the globe.

The scope of the report appeared to infuriate the Vatican – which last month sent two top officials to appear before the U.N. committee in Geneva for the first public accounting of the Holy See’s handling of abuse allegations. Officials said they were still studying the findings, but responded angrily to what they described as recommendations that were ideologically biased and said the United Nations had no right to weigh in on a broad range of socially conservative church teachings.

“Trying to ask the Holy See to change its teachings is not negotiable,” Silvano Maria Tomasi, the Vatican’s permanent observer at the United Nations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio.

At a time when the Vatican has been riding a wave of positive publicity surrounding Pope Francis, the report once again shone a spotlight on the single largest stain on the Catholic Church’s global image: Its handling of allegations of sexual abuse by clerics.

The Vatican had been bracing itself for the report. Following massive revelations of sexual abuse by clerics in Europe in 2010, the U.N. committee, which is headquartered in Geneva, launched its own investigation last year. The Vatican declined the committee’s request to review internal files and data on abuse cases.

The report said that in some cases, confidentiality has been imposed on child victims and their families as a precondition of financial compensation. The panel also charged the church with obstructing efforts in certain countries to extend the statute of limitations for criminal or civil cases, and with failing to hold the church hierarchy responsible for burying or failing to respond to allegations.

The committee “is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the 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,” the report concluded.

The committee condemned church doctrine that it views as out of step with the principles of human rights and child welfare. In blunt language that was a sharp departure from the polite wording so often embraced by diplomats, the committee took particularl aim at church stances on sexual orientation, reproductive health and gender equality.

“While also noting as positive the progressive statement delivered in July 2013 by Pope Francis, the Committee is concerned about the Holy See’s past statements and declarations on homosexuality which contribute to the social stigmatization of and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adolescents and children raised by same sex couples,” the report said.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said “anyone bringing attention to the problem of sex abuse is moving toward solving it.” But she strongly criticized the U.N. report for weaving issues like contraception and abortion into the report.

“Unfortunately they weakened it by throwing in the whole kitchen sink,” she said Wednesday. “Those are culture war issues. Sex abuse isn’t a culture war issue – it’s a sin and a crime.”

U.N. officials in Geneva described the investigation as only one of many periodic reviews it conducts of sovereign states that are signatories of Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Holy See ratified in 1990. They said the panel’s report veered beyond the sexual abuse cases because it found the other topics relevant to the Vatican’s compliance with all articles of the convention.

Officials dismissed suggestions from the Vatican that the report was biased, and perhaps even written in advance of the hearings on the abuse cases last month.

“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is something that we have raised with many states,” Kirsten Sandberg, chair of the committee, said in a statement. “This is nothing special. We are not going outside the scope of the Convention.”

Katherine Gallagher, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the convention “sets out a number of provisions for child welfare.”

“Access to reproductive justice, for instance, is a health issue and is clearly something within the committee’s purview,” she said.

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