- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2014

Advocates for the victims of sex abuse by Catholic priests say that a recent U.N. watchdog report on the Vatican’s handling of the scandal could have been far more damning.

But Vatican supporters say the U.N. Committee Against Torture continues to smear the church’s reputation by demanding more transparency and cooperation, even though the panel did not bring up hot button topics like abortion and gay marriage.

In its report issued Friday, the U.N. panel in Geneva said the Holy See must ensure that bishops and priests comply with the dictates of an anti-torture treaty to which the Vatican has been a signatory since 2002.

The anti-torture committee concluded that the Vatican did not properly report charges against abusive priests, and moved them to different churches instead of disciplining them. It also said the Holy See did not sufficiently compensate victims.

The committee did not go as far as to say the Vatican was in violation of the anti-torture treaty, but some of its members said the panel’s criticisms imply that is the case.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the U.N., called the report a reflection of the “good faith efforts” made by the church to address the abuse, but noted several points on which the two sides disagree.

“The committee did not expressly conclude that, in and of itself, rape or sexual abuse by individual non-state actors constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under the [treaty],” Archbishop Tomasi said. “Nevertheless, many of the observations make reference to sexual abuse, which the Holy See condemns as a serious crime and grave violation of human dignity.

“Regrettably, there appears to be an implicit fundamental assumption throughout the observations that any sexual abuse is equivalent to, or a form of, torture as defined in the [treaty],” he said.

Stefano Gennarini, director of the Center for Legal Studies at Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, said the report “toned down quite a lot on controversial social issues.”

“What the report did not tone down is clergy sexual abuse,” Mr. Gennarini said. “They’re still insisting that every abuse by clergy is ultimately the responsibility of the Vatican, which is absurd. The committee is basically asking the same questions over and over, and the purpose seems to be to try to paint the Holy See in a bad light.”

Meanwhile, Ashley McGuire, advisory board member of Catholic Voices, said her group was “pleased to see” that the torture committee’s report “backed away from the extremist argument that to be pro-life is to be pro-torture.

“This is a victory for the religious liberty and free speech rights of the Church and all those who hold moral and religious beliefs that go against what Pope Francis described as a ‘horrific, throwaway culture,’” Ms. McGuire said.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests called the anti-torture committee report a “win” for abused children that sends a clear message to the Vatican to discipline its clergy.

“Heinous and degrading child rape, mistreatment, assault and torture keeps happening in the church,” said Mary Caplan, director of New York City’s survivors network. “Those who could stop it won’t. And they aren’t punished. It’s reassuring to us that the committee shares our view that this is one reason child sexual violence and cover-ups continue.”

The Vatican has weathered its share of criticism by the U.N. committee over the past few months.

In February, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child blasted the Holy See’s handling of the sex abuse scandal, and suggested that the Catholic Church revise its canon to approve homosexuality, abortion, birth control and premarital sex.

The U.N. Committee Against Torture applauded Pope Francis for several steps taken under his papacy, including the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and a statement he made last month that the church would “not take one step backward” with regards to dealing with the sex abuse cases.

According to the Central Office of Church Statistics in the Vatican Secretariat of State, the church has more than 400,000 priests and 5,000 bishops serving its 1.2 billion followers worldwide.

Archbishop Tomasi said during his appearance before the committee earlier this month that the Holy See had defrocked 848 priests and slapped 2,572 clergy members with lesser sanctions in the last 10 years.

The Holy See has until May 23, 2015, to submit to the committee a list of issues it plans to addressing at its next report in 2018.

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