GENEVA — A U.N. anti-torture committee report has said that the Holy See did not violate the international Convention Against Torture.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the apostolic nuncio leading the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the United Nations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio the committee’s observations are “an acknowledgement of the good-faith efforts of the Holy See to comply [with] always and to advance the Convention Against Torture.”
The U.N. Committee on the Convention Against Torture released an advanced unedited version of its concluding observations on May 23.
“The committee did not conclude that the Holy See, its officials and those acting on its behalf, in conjunction with it or under its direction or control have violated the Convention Against Torture,” the Holy See stressed in a communiqué.
The Holy See communiqué reiterated support for the Convention Against Torture. It voiced willingness to enact measures to prevent “any cruel and inhuman behavior” and to continue to support all victims.
The Holy See said the committee’s observations include many positive findings that show the committee acknowledges “the good faith efforts of the Holy See to comply with the Convention Against Torture; to institute reforms to prevent sexual abuse; and to compensate and facilitate the care and healing of sexual abuse.”
The committee observations cited the Holy See’s “clear condemnation” of the use of torture and noted Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 statement to prison chaplains that the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances.”
The U.N. committee acknowledged that the Holy See, Catholic dioceses and religious orders have instituted “important efforts” to prevent sex abuse. It welcomed Pope Francis’ comments on sex abuse on April 11, 2014, when he told the International Catholic Child Bureau: “We will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, we have to be even stronger.”
Clergy Sexual Abuse
The committee said the Holy See should ensure effective monitoring of accused clergy, prevent the transfer of clergy who face credible abuse accusations and report allegations to civil authorities. It said the Holy See should ensure its officials react properly to credible allegations and should sanction any official who fails to do so.
The extent to which the convention applies to all Catholic clergy was a matter of debate at the hearings on the Holy See.
The U.N. committee report said that signatories to the convention have “international responsibility” for their officials and for “non-state actors” in “any situation in which they exercise jurisdiction or effective control.”
However, Vatican officials have repeatedly stated that there is a distinction between the Holy See and the global Church. International treaties are signed by countries rather than global institutions, they stressed, so while the Church as an institution exercises moral, spiritual and pastoral responsibility over its ministers, the Holy See’s signature on the anti-torture convention in 2002 has as its legal jurisdiction only the Vatican City State.
Critics have accused the U.N. of using the hearing as an opportunity to harass and target the Catholic Church by focusing on sex abuse. They have argued that sex abuse — although a terrible offense — does not meet the definition for “torture” laid out in the convention.
That definition states that torture is “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed or intimidating or coercing him or a third person or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
The United Nations’ Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child held hearings about the Holy See earlier this year. That committee similarly focused on the Catholic sex-abuse scandals but also criticized Catholic teaching on homosexuality, contraception and abortion.
Opposing Abortion Isn’t ‘Torture’
Some members of the anti-torture committee had criticized Catholic opposition to abortion at its hearings in early May. One committee vice chair, the American Felice Gaer, told the Holy See delegation that the committee has found that criminalizing abortion in all circumstances can violate the convention of torture.
The Holy See communiqué noted that the anti-torture committee report rejected such an interpretation of the Church’s stance against abortion.
Stated the communiqué, “Finally, the conclusions do not assert that the Church's efforts to protect the unborn are a form of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under the CAT, thus safeguarding the fundamental human right of freedom of religion and opinion and the protection and promotion of human life."