The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has in a report indicted the Catholic Church for acts of clerical child abuse, a scandal that has dogged it for more than a decade now. Acting under the authority of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the Vatican is a signatory, the panel has recommended that the Church remove priests suspected or known to have resorted to abuse, open its records on abusers and the bishops who covered up for them, and turn the cases over to the civil justice system rather than let the Vatican’s own justice department handle them behind closed doors. The committee has blamed the Vatican for valuing its own reputation above the protection of child-victims, and maintaining a “code of silence.” It has also urged the Holy See to ensure that issues of reproductive health, including access to information about contraception and preventing HIV, are included in the curriculum in Catholic schools, and to use its moral authority to condemn discrimination against children raised by same-sex couples. The Vatican promptly hit back, accusing the committee of exceeding its mandate and adopting the “prejudiced” positions of anti-Catholic advocacy groups. Reacting to the recommendation that the Church amend canon law to allow abortion in some cases, it complained that religious freedom was being trampled upon, saying that the committee had “gone beyond its competence and interfered in the moral and doctrinal positions of the Catholic Church.” The Vatican accused the committee of having ignored its unique status and its efforts to address the abuse crisis.
Even more problematic is the Vatican’s effort to wash its hands of broader responsibility for the staggering scale of priestly misdeeds. The argument is that the Church is not comparable to a global business operation and cannot be expected to keep in check all clergymen in all parts of the world. This is a dodge. The committee has rightly said that by ratifying the convention the Vatican “committed itself to implementing the convention not only on the territory of the Vatican City state, but also as the supreme power of the Catholic Church through individuals and institutions placed under its authority.” Pope Francis has generated hopes of a new dawn, but on the question of abuse, he is simply not there yet, although last year he termed it “the shame of the Church.” His predecessor Benedict XVI apologised to abuse victims and called for zero tolerance, but rhetoric seems to have outstripped real action. The Church hierarchy should appreciate the urgency of the issue. There will be a heavy moral cost involved if it insists on looking for legal loopholes.