VATICAN CITY — As the Holy See braces itself for another grilling from another United Nations committee, some prominent pro-life leaders are arguing the Church should withdraw from relevant treaties until she receives a fair hearing.
Vatican officials are to appear before the U.N.’s Committee Against Torture Monday and Tuesday this week, during which they are expected to be quizzed again over clerical sex abuse, but this time from the perspective of torture and inhuman treatment.
It follows harsh criticisms in January by the U.N. committee that monitors children’s rights, which accused the Holy See of systematically placing its own interests over those of victims, but the committee ignored stringent measures put in place by the Church in recent years to eradicate such crimes.
The U.N. body also exceeded its authority by calling on the Church to change its teaching on homosexuality, contraception and abortion.
The Vatican became signatory to the Convention Against Torture in 2002, and as such, it must routinely appear before the convention’s monitoring committee. But the Vatican has strongly disputed placing clerical sex abuse of minors in the context of torture, saying it comes under the rights of the child instead.
In a long statement issued on Friday, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi stressed the Holy See’s “strong commitment against any form of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.” He highlighted progress made by the Holy See in matching the requirements of the convention in the legislative domain, which he said has been “very significant.”
At the same time, he pointed out that, “not infrequently,” such U.N. committees pose questions “deriving from issues not strictly linked to the text of the convention, but, rather, connected to it indirectly or based on an extensive interpretation.”
Father Lombardi noted that a contributory factor is often pressure from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) “with a strong ideological character and orientation,” such as tying clerical sex abuse to torture — “a matter which relates instead to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
“The extent to which this is instrumental and forced is clear to any unbiased observer,” he said, adding it is to be hoped “that a serene and objective dialogue may take place, pertinent to the text of the conventions and their objectives.”
Otherwise, the Vatican spokesman said, the treaties “may be distorted” and the committees “risk losing authority and being reduced to tools of ideological pressure rather than a necessary stimulus towards the desired progress in promoting respect for human rights.”
He said the Holy See’s “sincere hope” during the hearings is that it can emphasize its “strong commitment against any form of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In “shadow reports” (submitted to an international human-rights body by an organization other than the government) submitted to the committee ahead of this week’s hearing, various NGOs with strong ideological positions against Church teaching have made their prejudices known in a bid to try and influence the committee’s conclusions.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, for instance, claims the Holy See has “directly perpetuated torture or ill-treatment by publicly excommunicating women who have undergone and doctors who have performed abortions, causing severe mental suffering.” It also claims the Holy See has “indirectly contributed to torture” by “negatively interfering with the development of state policy on abortion.” Such interference, it says, is “in violation of its obligations” as a signatory of the convention.
Vatican officials argue that such statements far exceed the purposes of the treaty. “This is a total contradiction,” one Vatican official told the Register on condition of anonymity. “Are they now interpreting the convention for us?”
Unusually for such hearings, some shadow reports have been submitted in support of the Church. Catholic Voices USA has issued a strong counteroffensive against ideological attacks, saying, “The age-old desire to marginalize and discredit the Church has lately taken a new and vitriolic form.”
The Catholic Voices report singles out a “new intolerance,” characterized by “ideological insatiability,” which “insidiously” tells the young that “religious faith is on the wrong side of history.” It argues that the U.N. charter wouldn’t exist “without the universalist ideas about human rights bequeathed to humanity by Christianity itself.”
And highlighting the extent of humanitarian work the Church carries out across the world, the report asks, “If the new intolerance has its way and Church teaching about human dignity and the sanctity of life diminish, will humanity prosper for it?”
Austin Ruse, president and founder of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), told the Register that these reports are “important” but will have “absolutely no effect whatsoever on the outcome of the coming report.”
“The treaty monitoring bodies are made up of radicals, and they will do exactly what they want to do, which, in this case, is to beat up the Church,” he said. The Holy See “will not get a fair hearing” at this committee “no matter what they do,” and he urged the Vatican to have “a PR strategy worked out” ready to defend the Church around the world.
Israel is one country that refuses to attend such hearings, even though it is a signatory to the treaty, and some argue the Holy See should do the same.
“The Catholic Church follows a Master who overturned the merchants’ and money-changers’ tables in the Temple of Jerusalem because he was offended by the blasphemous stench of their hypocrisy,” said Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a pro-life think tank. “If Our Blessed Lord is to be our model in all things, we should not be afraid to ‘overturn the tables’ when confronted by hypocrisy in our own time.”
Harnwell suggested to the Register that the Pope could consider using the opportunity this week to announce that the Holy See is “temporarily withdrawing” from the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child “until such time as it returns to its original responsibility: promoting the Convention on the Rights of the Child and not the extreme extraneous interests that have hijacked it.”
“Frankly, children deserve better than to be used as pawns in an external ideological battle,” he said.
‘Harming Authentic Human Rights’
Ruse believes withdrawal also might be necessary, but over a longer period.
“My advice would be to weather this inevitable attack on the Church and, sometime in the next few years, withdraw from these U.N. treaties,” he said. “In doing so, they should make the case they are withdrawing because the treaty monitoring bodies are going far beyond their warrant, far beyond the four walls of the treaties, and in the process harming authentic human rights.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.