Once again the Catholic Church has had to endure a public scolding by a United Nations agency arising from the sexual abuse of children by clergy, and once again has responded with a tone of hurt innocence. These confrontations are both embarrassing and unproductive, and add little to the actual safeguarding of children. The latest case concerns the Holy See’s compliance with the international Convention Against Torture. The UN committee charged with overseeing it decided to treat the abuse of children as a form of torture, and to hold the Catholic Church institutionally liable for it. Given the lasting mental suffering that sexual abuse often causes, this is within reasonable limits of the definition. To dispute it, as a Vatican spokesman has done, is to suggest that even now the authorities do not grasp the gravity of these matters.
Nevertheless the facts on which the Convention Against Torture relied are substantially the same as those that led a similar UN committee – overseeing compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child – to reach a similar conclusion earlier in the year. It is not clear what this repetition achieves. In each case the committee made the simple equation that the Vatican equals the Holy See, which, because it is the nearest the Church has to a central government, therefore equals the entire Church. Attempts by church representatives to disentangle this confusion on legal grounds were once again brushed aside. And in the popular mind too, including among ordinary Catholics, such distinctions do not address the key issue. Something went catastrophically wrong inside the Catholic priesthood where the protection of children was concerned; the shame falls everywhere; and nobody in charge has been held responsible.
These two UN committees are probably the only international arenas in which the Church can be called to account. In the last 10 years, the Vatican said this week, 848 priests have been laicised on these grounds and 2,572 removed from active ministry. What it did not say is that the total number of bishops who have been dismissed from their posts for negligence in connection with child abuse is zero – though a few have been eased into comfortable early retirement. These were the chief executives of dioceses where paedophile priests were active. Popes have unlimited power to dismiss bishops, and can even override their natural right to a fair hearing. This power exists for a purpose, to safeguard the good of the Church. That must include, pre-eminently, the good of those members least able to look after themselves.
What did the Holy See think it was doing when it originally signed up to these two UN conventions? Did it not appreciate that it was submitting to their supervision; and on their terms, not its own? Did it not realise that the “immediate universal jurisdiction” that every Pope may exercise over the whole Church, as defined by the First Vatican Council, makes him responsible for every uncorrected crime or misdemeanour anywhere in the Church? This imposes the duty to see justice is done in every case, including the application of sanctions. It is indeed ironic that a measure passed in 1870 as part of the aggrandisement of the papacy, the high point of Ultramontanism, has been turned against it to bring it into disrepute. Not until the Vatican truly faces up to this painful fact can recovery from this scandal really begin.
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