Negative tone of UN report takes Vatican by surprise

At its deposition in Geneva, the Holy See believed it had made it clear that its house was in order on the clerical sex abuse issue

The Vatican’s UN Ambassador Monsignor Silvano Tomasi and former Vatican chief prosecutor of clerical sexual abuse Charles Scicluna,  in Geneva last month.  Photograph: Martial Trezzini/EPA

The Vatican’s UN Ambassador Monsignor Silvano Tomasi and former Vatican chief prosecutor of clerical sexual abuse Charles Scicluna, in Geneva last month. Photograph: Martial Trezzini/EPA

Thu, Feb 6, 2014, 01:00

There is little doubt but that the “negative” tone of yesterday’s UN report took the Holy See by surprise.

Three weeks ago, when the Vatican made its deposition in Geneva, it had done so in a climate of cordial co-operation, where its answers to hard questions seemed well received.

The Vatican delegation believed it had managed to get across one of its key points: that the Holy See had finally begun to get its house in order on the clerical sex abuse issue.

Implicit point
That point was implicit in a remark made in Geneva by former Vatican prosecutor Bishop Charles Scicluna, who said the Holy See now “gets it”, suggesting that in the past it had misunderstood and underestimated the clerical sex abuse issue.

The man who led that Holy See delegation, the Vatican’s permanent representative in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, seemed to reflect this view when he told Vatican Radio yesterday: “The report . . . points out a rather negative approach to what the Holy See has been doing and has already achieved in the area of protection of children. The first impression is that the report is in some ways not up to date.”

Tomasi touched on one of the key issues raised by yesterday’s report, that of legal liability, when he said: “The Holy See presented the concrete measures taken both at the level of the Vatican city state and of the church at large, taking into account that priests are not employees of the pope but they are responsible citizens of the countries where they work and therefore accountable to the judicial system of those countries.”

The point here is that the report acknowledged that bishops and major superiors “do not act as representatives or delegates of the Roman pontiff”.

Yet the same bishops and superiors are bound by an oath of obedience to the pope. In other words, the Holy See may have no legal liability for abuser priests, but does it not have a moral responsibility?

The Holy See will argue that this report represents a rehash of the sex abuse horror stories of the last 20 years. Arguably the most damning criticism by the UN committee, however, is that the deliberate mishandling of the crisis was the expression of a sick corporate culture.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question yesterday concerns Pope Francis. Lobby groups argue that, if he is “serious about turning the page on this scandal”, he should take serious action. It is not clear what that action might entail.

However, some indication may come from key meetings in the Vatican this month when the so-called G8 “privy council” of eight adviser cardinals meet Francis, prior to a consistory of all the cardinals. Those two meetings and a synod on the family next October may spring some surprises.

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