Human Rights and Religious Freedom

Archbishop Tomasi Discusses the United Nations and the Current Sexual-Abuse Crisis

WEAKENED POSITION. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, who has been the Holy See’s permanent representative to the United Nations since mid-2003, said the current sexual-abuse crisis has hurt the Church’s moral authority.
WEAKENED POSITION. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, who has been the Holy See’s permanent representative to the United Nations since mid-2003, said the current sexual-abuse crisis has hurt the Church’s moral authority. (photo: CNS photo)

The Holy See has welcomed the dwindling support for a recent U.N. resolution on religious freedom which opponents warn could be used to oppress religious minorities in some Muslim-majority states.

Although the “defamation of religion” resolution, which is debated annually, narrowly passed the Human Rights Council March 25, the Holy See welcomed the fact that numbers supporting it fell from last year.

The resolution, which is non-binding, was carried by 20 member states to 17, with eight abstentions and two who were supposed to vote but left the room. Twenty-three states supported the same resolution last year.

“There has been a very interesting change,” Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, said March 26. He added that he hoped this means “the trend is to quash this development,” and pointed out that for the first time countries in Sub-Saharan Africa voted against or abstained. Nations supporting it included China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba.

The resolution, tabled by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Conference, was drawn up partly in response to offensive portrayals of Islam in the Western media. The United States opposed the resolution which, it said, “failed to galvanize international support for real solutions to improve the lives of people on the ground.” It called the resolution “ineffective” and an “instrument of division.”

Archbishop Tomasi warned that the implications of the resolution would give “a kind of justification” to governments to discriminate against religious minorities. As an example, he said that if a Christian in Pakistan says Jesus is the Son of God, the government can intervene and arrest him because he has offended the Quran and Islam. (The Quran says Jesus is only a prophet, not the only begotten Son of God.) The resolution could therefore limit freedom of religion and freedom of expression, allowing a government to “politically manipulate human rights.”

In this way, he said, “the state will become the arbiter of what is correct or not correct, rather than the conscience of the individual or the religion as such.”

He stressed that what was needed instead was balance and common sense in today’s pluralistic and globalized societies. “Here the social doctrine of the Church is very helpful, because we always start from a universal value that becomes a platform, the common denominator, on which we can all build — that is, a common humanity and the dignity of the human person,” he said. “From there we find a balance on coexistence, relations with others, and the need for dialogue.” Secularist and humanist groups also opposed the resolution, although for different reasons.

Turning to the sexual-abuse crisis, Archbishop Tomasi said that he understands the strength of the criticism that has been leveled against the Church in recent weeks, but noted that it could throw the Church’s credibility and moral authority into question.

He stressed that one instance of pedophilia in the Church is “one case too many,” because the confidence and the trust people assume in their relations with a priest is betrayed. “This is the root of the problem, and this, in a way, justifies the passion of the media in highlighting this problem within the Church,” he said.

He added that there were “no excuses” to justify these crimes. “We need to be clear, transparent and condemn them, and allow the court system to proceed and clean house,” he said. “People who made mistakes should pay for it. God’s mercy is always present, but society demands that correction be done in an effective and visible way.”

But he added that the phenomenon should be put into perspective and that the rest of the world should join the Church in trying to tackle abuse against children. He said that, according to U.N. estimates, 200 million children are abused every year worldwide, compared with 10,667 cases in the Church over the past 50 years, most of which were false accusations.

“The Church may hide a bigger reality and be the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The whole mass of cases is not being discussed, and the search for solution and remedies is not being equally reflected upon.”
He stressed he didn’t want to be misunderstood, that everything must be done in the Church to prevent further abuse, but there also needs to be a focus on the need to protect children elsewhere, too. “The evidence is massive in schools, in families, in some professional categories,” he said. “The problem is much higher [there], but that’s no excuse for the Church.”

Archbishop Tomasi said he didn’t “see much of a problem” in the effect of the scandal on his own work. He recalled a recent U.N. discussion on sexual violence against children, saying that his contribution “was very much appreciated, and no other state pointed their finger at the Holy See.”

However, he said he was concerned about the Church’s overall standing in the world. “It’s a question of the credibility for the Church, because the scandals that are being highlighted with a certain gusto on the part of the media in different countries, particularly in the West, have a compounding effect on the public perception of what the Church should or should not do,” he said. “Therefore, in a way, [it affects] the moral authority of the Church.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.