A United Nations committee decried the Vatican’s response to sexual abuse of children by its clergy, saying the Holy See has allowed alleged predators to strike again because it was more concerned about itself than the victims.
“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,” the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said in a report released today. The Vatican in response reiterated “its commitment to defending and protecting the rights of the child” according to church teaching.
The committee’s report increases expectations on Pope Francis, who has won praise in his first 11 months in office for encouraging dialogue on social issues. The Roman Catholic leader was urged to break what the panel characterized as church practice of harboring sex offenders, retaliating against witnesses and condoning ritualized beatings.
“The committee notes as positive the willingness expressed by the delegation of the Holy See to change attitudes and practices,” the panel said. It “looks forward to the adoption of prompt and firm measures for the concrete implementation of its commitments.”
The findings take into account a Vatican report presented to the panel in January 2013, when the church was led by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Francis, 77, has been hailed as a potential reformer after the final years of Benedict’s reign, which ended a year ago with his resignation. The Argentine pontiff has taken on money laundering at the Vatican bank, signaled an easing of the church’s traditional stance against homosexuality and repeatedly spoken up about the injustice of income inequality.
The church’s decades-long struggle with child molestation, which the UN panel said has claimed tens of thousands of victims worldwide, may be the biggest problem inherited by Francis. The Vatican, while saying it would submit the UN panel’s report to “thorough study,” signaled it will contest at least some of the findings.
“The committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed,” the UN panel said. The church “has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators,” it said.
A “code of silence” has been imposed on clergy in cases of child sex abuse, and nuns and priests have been demoted and let go for stepping out of line, the committee said. It called for transparency and cooperation with law enforcement and victims organizations.
The UN panel called for the Holy See to provide family planning information to minors and make HIV and AIDS a mandatory part of Catholic school curriculum, the panel said. Corporal punishment, which it said has “reached endemic levels in certain countries,” must be banned.
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,” the Vatican said in its e-mailed response. It didn’t specify which points it objected to.
Mothers who bear the children of priests should no longer be required to sign confidentiality agreements in exchange for financial support, the UN panel said.
The church may be moving in the right direction as it reviews withdrawing references to “illegitimate children” from its law, the panel said. Francis was also recognized for his “progressive statement” in July, when the pontiff addressed the issue of homosexuality.
Still, the committee said past church comments on homosexuality contribute to stigmatization and violence against gay, bisexual and transgender adolescents.
The panel recommended the Vatican “promptly abolish the discriminatory classification of children born out of wedlock as illegitimate children,” it said. “The committee also urges the Holy See to make full use of its moral authority to condemn all forms of harassment, discrimination or violence against children based on their sexual orientation.”
Catholic Voices, a U.K.-based blog that comments on media coverage of the church, criticized the report and said dozens of incarcerated priests and millions of dollars in compensation paid to victims undermine the findings. It also argued that the decentralized nature of the church renders the systematic training recommended by the committee impracticable.
“The committee has shown itself to be a kangaroo court,” according to the blog. The findings were produced “by adopting the mythical framework peddled by victims’ advocacy groups and lawyers, and ignoring the evidence put to it by the Holy See.”
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