Vatican faces tough questions at UN torture committee

Vatican to answer questions on past, present and future handling of clerical sex abuse

 Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, (R), Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See  to the Office of the United Nations in Geneva, and Vincenzo Buonomo, (L), of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See   prior to the UN torture committee hearing on the Vatican, at the headquarters of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights  in the Palais Wilson, in Geneva, Switzerland. Photograph:  Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, (R), Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the Office of the United Nations in Geneva, and Vincenzo Buonomo, (L), of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See prior to the UN torture committee hearing on the Vatican, at the headquarters of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Palais Wilson, in Geneva, Switzerland. Photograph: Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA

 

As expected, a Holy See delegation faced tough questioning at the UN’s Committee Against Torture in Geneva yesterday. For the second time in three months, the Vatican was appearing before a UN body to answer questions about its ratification of a UN treaty, especially with regard to is past, present and future handling of clerical sex abuse.

In his opening address to the committee, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent representative at the UN in Geneva, argued that while the Holy See lent “its moral support and collaboration . . . to the elimination of torture”, it had signed the torture convention in 2002 “on behalf of the Vatican city state”.

No jurisdiction
Archbishop Tomasi said he intended to “focus exclusively on the Vatican city state”, the 100 -acre statelet that surrounds the Basilica of St Peter’s.

In that sense, he claimed, the Holy See had “no jurisdiction over every member of the Catholic Church”. Rather, he said, persons who “live in a particular country are under the jurisdiction of the legitimate authorities of that country and are thus subject to the domestic law [of that country]”.

Inevitably, that assertion prompted a critical reaction from the UN committee, with US human rights activist Felice Gaer accusing Archbishop Tomasi of making an “alleged distinction” between the Holy See and the Vatican city state.

She questioned the Holy See’s apparent assumption that the torture convention applied only to the “four corners of Vatican City”, saying that as far as she could see, Vatican City was simply a “sub-division” of the Holy See.

“The important consideration for this committee is not church doctrine; it is simply that you show us that as a party to the convention you have a system in place to prohibit torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as defined by the convention by anyone under the effective control of the Holy See . . ,” Ms Gaer added.

The issue at stake here is that some of those who have submitted “shadow reports” to the committee, including the US centre for constitutional rights and the victims lobby group, Snap, have tried to argue that clerical sex abuse is indeed an expression of the “cruel, inhuman and degrading” behaviour covered not just by the Committee for the Rights of the Child but also by the Committee Against Torture.

Speaking on Vatican Radio yesterday afternoon, Archbishop Tomasi appeared to reject this definition of “torture” when he said that it was necessary to be “careful” about “certain interpretations” of the convention.


Heinous crime
A Vatican source last night said that while the Holy See views sex abuse as a heinous crime, it believes it is wrong to equate it with some sort of state-sponsored rape.

As happened at the rights of the child hearings in January, questions were again asked by committee members about just how the Holy See viewed the issue of compensation for the victims of the Magdalene Laundries.

Archbishop Tomasi will reply to that and other questions in a committee session this afternoon, while the torture committee’s final report is due for May 23rd.