U.N. Committee’s Effort ‘to Teach Theology to the Holy See Caught Us by Surprise’

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s U.N. representative in Geneva, discusses the recent report that attacked Church teachings on sexuality and the sanctity of human life.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva. (photo: AP photo)

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, told the Register in an email this week that a U.N. committee issued a “rather negative” report on the Catholic Church’s steps in recent years to protect children.

Archbishop Tomasi also told the Register that the committee apparently does not understand the nature of the Catholic Church. He said he was surprised that a U.N. committee tried to teach theology to the Holy See.

 On Feb. 5, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, an 18-member treaty body designated with monitoring the implementation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, issued its “concluding observations” that criticized the Holy See for its handling of the international clergy sex-abuse crisis.

The committee said it was “gravely concerned” that the Holy See did not take “necessary measures” to address the crisis and protect children. The committee also accused the Holy See of adopting policies and practices that led to the continuation of clergy sex abuse and shielding of predator-priests.

Those criticisms followed a Jan. 16 public hearing in Geneva, where some members of the committee actually praised the Holy See for the steps it had taken over the past decade to prevent sex abuse and protect children.

The U.N. committee also called upon the Holy See to change Church teachings on homosexuality, contraception and abortion, claiming that those teachings harm children and violate their rights.

In an email response to questions posed by the Register, Archbishop Tomasi commented on the U.N. committee’s criticisms, as well as the need to prevent sex abuse and protect children. Archbishop Tomasi also responded to the committee’s call that the Catholic Church should change its moral teachings.


What did you think, overall, of the concluding recommendations?

The Committee of the Convention on the Rights of the Child issued its conclusions and recommendations on the reports of the Holy See, submitted, as is done with other [entities in the] States Party, to this treaty. The committee’s text is written in a rather negative and aggressive style. Of course, it does well to recall the crimes against minors perpetrated by some Church personnel and to recommend changes; these were expected remarks. In this connection, I often repeat that a case of sexual abuse in the Church is a case too many. 

The committee also acknowledged the efforts made by the Holy See during the last several years to fight violence and abuse against children. The impression conveyed, however — that the Church continues to cover up and tolerate such abuses — is at least anachronistic and incorrect.

The enormous efforts made in recent years to prevent sexual abuse by Church personnel should, in fairness, be recognized. At various Church levels, the measures adopted are strong, have a concrete positive impact and constitute good practices others can imitate. The cleaning up of the Church house is a process well advanced and effectively supported by the popes and the Holy See: Laws have been updated; penalties defined; instructions to bishops’ conferences are in place; a new Papal Commission for the Protection of Minors is being established. This is the road to follow.

Indeed, priority is the protection of children. Worldwide child sexual abuse is a scourge that reaches some 40 million cases a year, according to statistics of U.N. agencies. Most of these cases happen in the family, while others [are] in public schools, sports centers, summer camps, etc. It becomes urgent to counteract such crimes all across the board and to work for prevention and care for the victims.

The Holy See, I feel, has been doing its share, a fact that doesn’t emerge much in the committee’s concluding report, even though it had acknowledged in our meeting the availability of the Holy See to answer all questions. Now, the Holy See, as is its right, will reply to the observations of the committee before they are sent to the U.N. General Assembly, and, hopefully, misunderstandings or misinterpretations will be cleared away.


Were you taken aback by the recommendations that the Holy See change Church teachings in the controversial areas of birth control, homosexuality and abortion? Did the committee overstep its mandate in including those terms?

The task of the committee and its service to the United Nations is promoting the implementation of the convention and verifying how the States Party implements it. That the committee wanted to also teach theology to the Holy See caught us by surprise.

In the first paragraphs of the concluding document of the committee, the focus is clearly on the implementation of the convention and its concerns. There is always room for improvement, and suggestions in this area proper to the responsibility of the committee are welcomed.

Then, there are a variety of observations that direct the Holy See and the Catholic Church to change their beliefs regarding contraceptives, homosexuality and abortion. The language of complementarity between man and woman used by the Church is criticized, and there is the request to modify canon law and to indicate the circumstances when abortion is permitted.

The nature of the Church is not understood. The Holy See does not control every Catholic, every parish, every kindergarten, as if the Pope had to sign the financial report of each of these institutions. It seems that the committee has been mixing apples and oranges: the requirements of the convention and advocacy for a specific sexual ideology.

And by the way, the convention, in its preamble, calls for the protection of the child before and after her birth. If anything, it is the Holy See that upholds the convention in opposing abortion, a procedure that, by killing the child, prevents any application and respect of human rights. There is certainly the impression that, in this doctrinal area, the committee has overstepped its boundaries.   


Did the report not reflect the content of the public dialogue of Jan. 16 in Geneva? Did this report ignore some of the progress and improvements the Holy See has made in this area?

The public dialogue between the members of the committee and the delegation of the Holy See that took place on Jan. 16 was intense, exhaustive and covered a full spectrum of issues. We provided all the evidence we had available and stated without ambiguity the responsibilities of the Holy See, those of national bishops’ conferences and national courts in preventing the moral and social evil of child abuse. 

In particular, both in the oral answers and in the written reports, the Holy See offered a clear and detailed presentation of the concrete measures enacted in the last decade on the part of the Holy See and local Churches to prevent child abuse, to punish the guilty and to assist the victims. In the Feb. 5 publication of the committee’s conclusion, these positive developments are not given much space.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the thorough work carried out by the Holy See and the local Churches could be replicated, with great benefit, by other institutions and other states. Of course, we always need to be attentive and continue to eliminate any possibility that children may be abused.


You told Vatican Radio in a recent interview that the Holy See will now offer a “detailed response.” When do you expect that to be submitted to the committee? What will be the next step after that?

Already at work, the Holy See, within the next few weeks, will present its responses, as I mentioned above. The committee will have a chance to consider the additional information presented, so that a fair report may arrive to the U.N. General Assembly.


Finally, some observers who are skeptical of the United Nations believe this is the latest example of forces within the international agency using the international organization to marginalize the Church in favor of a secularist worldview. Do you have any thoughts on that line of thinking? Is that a fair or unfair assessment?

The popes have constantly acknowledged the importance, even the necessity, of the organization of the United Nations. In today’s globalized world, the U.N. serves as a point of reference in the pursuit of peace and development. 

Notwithstanding all its limits, it provides a place of encounter and facilitates dialogue among states. In this global arena, a variety of perspectives and ideologies come together, some of which are certainly not in line with our Christian tradition. Freedom of expression and conviction and belief need to be respected to allow peaceful interaction and to recognize the equal dignity of every person and of their respective states.

Experts and bureaucrats may at times introduce their agendas, but, in the end, states make the decisions that express the position of the United Nations. The Holy See contributes to this process of building a world community that ensures the common good of all its peoples.

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.