Reputation of church ‘placed above children’s best interests’

UN report accuses Catholic Church of failing to acknowledge extent of abuse committed

The UN watchdog for children’s rights said the Holy See should hand over its archives on sexual abuse so that culprits, as well as “those who concealed their crimes”, could be held accountable.  Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters

The UN watchdog for children’s rights said the Holy See should hand over its archives on sexual abuse so that culprits, as well as “those who concealed their crimes”, could be held accountable. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters


The Holy See’s handling of the clerical sex abuse crisis that has rocked the Catholic Church for much of the last 20 years has come in for unprecedented criticism from the UN’s Geneva based Committee on the Rights of the Child.

In a report released today, following on a Vatican deposition in Geneva two weeks ago, the UN body says that the Church has failed to “acknowledge the extent of the crimes committed”.

Attempts to silence victims of abuse, the regular transferring of abuser priests from parish to parish and the “code of silence” imposed on clergy all form part of a corporate church culture which leads the committee to conclude:

“The Committee is particularly concerned that in dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse, the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests, as observed by several national commissions of inquiry.”

The church’s code of silence has meant that those nuns and priests who dared to denounce cases of child sex abuse were regularly “ostracised, demoted and fired”. Worse still, the Holy See encouraged an atmosphere where the non-reporting of paedophile crime was seen as a positive value.

In that context, the report quotes the infamous case of Colombian Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Vatican’s Congregation For the Clergy, who in 2001 wrote a letter to French Bishop Pierre Pican praising him for not denouncing an abuser priest his diocese, a priest who was later given an 18 year jail sentence for the abuse of 11 boys.

Inevitably, the Irish state, via the Ryan, Murphy and Magdalene reports, has provided the largest bulk of evidence in the above-named “national commissions of inquiry”. In relation to the Magdalene Laundries, for example, the committee argues that the Holy See did not protect or ensure justice for girls “arbitrarily placed there by their families, State institutions and churches”.

Saying the girls were “forced to work in slavery like conditions” where they were “deprived of their identity, of education and often of food and essential medicines”, the report concludes:

“Although the four Catholic congregations concerned function under the authority of the Holy See, no action has been taken to investigate the conduct of the sisters who ran the laundries and to cooperate with law enforcement authorities in holding accountable those who were responsible for the abuse as well as all those who organised and knowingly profited from the girls’ unpaid work.”

Although the Holy See has always argued that responsibility, especially legal responsibility for clerical sex abuse crime rests with the local Church and not with Rome, the report suggests clearly that the Catholic Church must assume a moral responsibility for the criminal conduct of priests, saying:

“While being fully conscious that bishops and major superiors of religious institutes do not act as representatives or delegates of the Roman Pontiff, the Committee nevertheless notes that subordinates in Catholic religious orders are bound by obedience to the Pope in accordance with Canons 331 and 590”.

With regard to the Magdalene Laundries, the committee concludes that the Holy See should undertake an internal investigation into the “religious personnel” who ran the laundries, whilst it should ensure that “full compensation be paid to victims and their families”.

In relation to the question of corporal punishment, the committee quotes the Ryan report, saying:

“The Committee is concerned that while corporal punishment, including ritual beatings of children, has been and remains widespread in some Catholic institutions and reached endemic levels in certain countries, as revealed notably by the Ryan Commission in Ireland, the Holy See still does not consider corporal punishment as being prohibited by the Convention (for Rights Of The Child) and has therefore not enacted guidelines and rules clearly banning corporal punishment of children in Catholic schools, in all Catholic institutions working with and for children, as well as in the home.”

The UN body’s report is by no mean exclusively concentrated on the question of clerical sex abuse. In relation to other child protection issues, the committee is highly critical of basic Catholic teaching on sexual mores. For example, it points out that the “discriminatory expression illegitimate children” can still be found in Canon law whilst it argues that the Holy See “should undertake a comprehensive review of its normative framework, in particular Canon Law”.

Nor does Church teaching on the LGBT communities escape criticism even if the report acknowledges the seemingly more open attitude of Pope Francis to gays, as expressed on the papal plane on the way back from Brazil last summer, commenting:

“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”