GENEVA — The Holy See’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva is hoping for a “sense of moderation and respect” in the final conclusions of a U.N. committee after it questioned the Holy See May 5-6 on clerical sex abuse in the context of torture.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi told the Register May 7 that the U.N. Committee on the Convention Against Torture hearing in Geneva was “a bit better” than the previous round in January, when the U.N.’s Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child went so far as to call on the Church to change its teaching on homosexuality, abortion and contraception.
“The chairperson of the committee made an effort to keep a sense of balance, to highlight some of the positive contributions of the Catholic Church to human rights in general and the fight against pedophilia,” he said.
But he stressed that some members of the committee tried to “link the Convention Against Torture with anything pertaining to sexual abuse and to make the crime of sexual abuse of minors some kind of torture.”
Although he said the Holy See accepts that sexual abuse of minors “is a legitimate question to be raised” under Article 16 of the convention that speaks of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Archbishop Tomasi said the Holy See delegation made it “very clear” that the definition of torture in Article 1 of the convention is “quite precise and involves state officials in activity that is degrading and humiliating for other people.”
From the outset of the hearing, the Holy See stressed that it signed up to the Convention on grounds that it would apply only to the territory of Vatican City State, not the wider Church. “The Holy See has no jurisdiction over every member of the Catholic Church," Archbishop Tomasi said in his opening remarks. While the Holy See can be a moral force, the "agent of justice" for crimes committed by Catholics was the local state where the crime was committed, he stressed.
But this wasn’t understood or welcomed by the committee’s chief rapporteur, Felice Gaer of the United States, who told the Vatican delegation that its position “seems to reflect an intention for a significant portion of the actions and omissions of Holy See officials to be excluded from consideration by this committee, and this troubles us.”
Gaer and another panel member presented dozens of questions from non-governmental organizations that are ideologically opposed to the Church, with many of these questions falling outside the scope of the treaty.
In a May 6 press release, Catholic Voices USA accused Gaer and the committee’s chairman, Claudio Grossman of Chile, of holding overt pro-abortion biases that are “impugning the credibility and reputation of the committee.”
Catholic Voices noted that Grossman previously has written academic texts promoting “reproductive rights” at the local, national and international levels and said that Gaer’s questioning “clearly demonstrates her hostility toward the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life.”
“It is outrageous that the U.N. Committee Against Torture would challenge the Catholic Church’s religious commitment to the sanctity of life at every stage,” commented Ashley McGuire, Catholic Voices USA advisory board member. “Throughout these hearings, Ms. Gaer has sent a strong signal that she considers a strong pro-life belief to be a pro-torture position. Given that most of the world’s religions hold similar views on abortion, were the committee to adopt such a twisted official position, it would be nothing more than a direct attack on religious freedom and undermine the very credibility of the committee and its mission.”
Explaining Church Actions
Despite the sometimes hostile questioning, Archbishop Tomasi nevertheless took the opportunity to explain that the Church “makes every effort” to conduct ecclesiastical proceedings against clerics credibly accused of the sexual abuse of minors. He also pointed out that Pope Francis has established a Commission for the Protection of Children as a further effort to safeguard minors in the Church.
Requested by a member of the committee to give statistics, the archbishop said that “credible accusations” had been made against 3,420 priests from 2004-2013. In the majority of cases, he said, the abuse was alleged to have occurred between 1950 and 1989. Many of those priests are or have been jailed by civil courts for their crimes, he said.
Within the same period, he said the Holy See had dismissed 848 priests from the priesthood as a result of the allegations being found to be true. In another 2,572 cases — mainly involving priests of an advanced age — the men were ordered to have no contact with children and were ordered to retreat to a life of prayer and penance.
Archbishop Tomasi also made clear to the committee that “significant steps and improvements” have been made to Vatican City State legislation, in compliance with the convention, that further reinforce the Holy See’s commitment to respecting the Convention Against Torture.
He further pointed out that, thanks to the Holy See’s multilingual media services, the Holy See is “arguably one of the most effective moral voices in the world for human rights, including the position against torture and other cruel and inhuman punishments.”
‘A Difficult Battle’
In comments to the Register, the Italian Church diplomat said the issue must be kept in perspective, and sexual abuse of minors is far more prevalent outside of the Church.
“Millions of cases” of exploitation and sexual exploitation of minors are documented each year, Archbishop Tomasi said, adding that the World Health Organization estimates the total number may be around 40 million.
But he observed that it’s difficult to convey to the media that the percentage is much higher than among Catholic clergy, “because when you put together sex and religion, it becomes a selling point for newspapers." He also said the Church and the UN committee are coming from two different philosophical positions which are also not easy to explain in soundbites. "We are fighting a difficult battle,” he said.
However, the force of the Gospel “has been effective in changing cultures and civilizations before,” he said, “and I think it’s still alive and effective today.”
The UN Committee on the Convention Against Torture is expected to issue its concluding report on the this week’s hearings on May 23.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
Register staff contributed to this report.