Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

U.N. mishandles Vatican on its handling of sex abuse

Vatican Coat of Arms
Vatican Coat of Arms

Vatican Coat of Arms

Last month, the Vatican presented a report on its efforts to deal with the abuse of minors in the church to the U.N.’s Committee on the Rights of the Child. There are so many problems with today’s response from the Committee that it must be considered a lost opportunity to encourage the Holy See to do the right thing.

These problems, ranging from the factual to the philosophical, have been specified in no uncertain terms by the distinguished English Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh. Not least among them is a profound confusion over the nature of the Catholic Church as an institution in the world. Consider the following statement:

While being fully conscious that bishops and major superiors of religious institutes do not act as representatives or delegates of the Roman Pontiff, the Committee nevertheless notes that subordinates in Catholic religious orders are bound by obedience to the Pope in accordance with Canons 331 and 590. The Committee therefore reminds the Holy See that by ratifying the Convention, it has committed itself to implementing the Convention not only on the territory of the Vatican City State but also as the supreme power of the Catholic Church through individuals and institutions placed under its authority.

The report thus proceeds to treat the Holy See as a state actor (the Vatican City State) wherever the church happens to be, holding it responsible for child protection in the way it would treat any country that is a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. That extends to making changes in canon law that go so far as to allow abortions for girls who become pregnant as the result of abuse.

Yet at the same time, the report recognizes that those subordinate to the Holy See operate under the legal system of other states. Indeed, the Holy See is called upon to “[e]stablish clear rules, mechanisms and procedures for the mandatory reporting of all suspected cases of child sexual abuse and exploitation to law enforcement authorities.”

Rather than try to get the Vatican to adapt longstanding and deeply held doctrines to the secular norms of the Convention, the Committee should have focused exclusively on the need for church institutions to treat accusations of sexual abuse in precisely the same way as secular institutions are required to treat them. And to treat officials who fail to follow the rules in exactly the same way secular officials are supposed to be treated.

The abuse crisis came about precisely because the church is accustomed to operate as a state within states. The way to end it is for all to agree that it can do so no longer.

Update: Over at  National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters corrects me for suggesting that the Vatican City State, not the Holy See, is the juridical actor in question. That is to say, it’s the Holy See, not Vatican City, that signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child — which is to say, the top authority in Roman Catholicism is in some sense on the hook. But to use this legal formality as the basis for treating the Holy See as if it were a state like any other state is worth than idiotic. It’s counterproductive.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


Click here to post a comment

  • What the UN report says about the Magdalene Laundries seems to owe more to sensational movies than to solid documentation such as was provided by the McAleese report. Did the UN folk even bother to read it?

  • “the need for church institutions to treat accusations of sexual abuse in precisely the same way as secular institutions are required to treat them.”
    As a physician who has met many who have been sexually abused by priests, I agree with Mark Silk that church institutions must refer all accusations of clergy sexual abuse to the police for investigation and prosecution. Sadly, there is still much secrecy, denial of the truth, protection of the predators, and re-victimization of the victims by the church. Instead of being good shepherds, the pope and hierarchy continue to protect the predators and poorly treat the victims, in my experience, and in the experience of many others. Sadly, Catholic judges, lawyers, police, and politicians continue to protect the church from accountability. This makes it harder to break through the denial of the truth of sexual abuse by clergy. Although Pope Francis has done many good things, he seems to lack courage to do the right thing in clergy sex abuse. He wants to continue to have the right to investigate the crimes and criminals in his own church. He is protecting Archbishop Wesolowski from facing charges of sexually abusing young boys in Poland and the Dominican Republic. Sadly, the pope has the nerve to claim diplomatic immunity. Therefore, it is clear to me that he wants to be his own law and his predator archbishop is more important to him than the soul-murder of so many young boys in 2 countries. Is it because the pope and clergy are childless that they lack the normal care that a good Dad would have and that Jesus commanded – to protect the innocence of children? Is this one of the bad effects of the clericalism that is talked about? The only way that the church can reclaim any moral authority, in my view, is to give all files on clergy sex abuse in the Vatican and elsewhere to the police for investigation, as was done by the Archbishop of Dublin, Ireland. The people of Dublin are grateful for the courage and integrity of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. He listens to victims and refers all cases to police for investigation and prosecution. Civil law must be first. Canon law must be secondary to civil law.

  • I’m sorry, but there should be no issue in the Church about protecting children. What the Church has done to protect child rapists is just plain WRONG!
    While the Church may now be trying to manage the damage, the fact is that this is not new. It has been happening for centuries! I believe that is the reason the UN committee used strong language. This should never have been tolerated. The fact that the Church has held a longstanding attitude that children are not people but property to be used as the property owners, in this case priests, is very morally offensive. Children ARE people! And the thousands of children raped by these priests will suffer for the rest of their lives for the wrong done to them by the Church. If anything, the UN report was not strong enough in condemning the reprehensible conduct of the Church .

  • For once, I heartily disagree with Mark Silk. At this late date, no “opportunity to encourage the Holy See to do the right thing” should be considered lost because the leaders of the Catholic Church, popes and bishops, have not only failed but tried to hide opportunities to do the the right thing about the sexual abuse of its clergy. There is no confusion about the status of the Catholic Church as a state.

    The Vatican is small as a headquarters, but it is spread vastly about the world. It has been so influential that President Franklin Roosevelt decided to have a “personal representative” with that “city state” during the tumultuous times surrounding World War II. And President Ronald Reagan questionably raised that personal representative status to full ambassador. Status includes responsibilities.

    The Vatican, like Washington, D.C. or 10 Downing St. in London, is the capital of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” that has considered itself equal to all members of the United Nations ever since the Lateran Treaty of 1929, even before the organization of the United Nations. The Catholic Church joined the United Nations and is justly subject to any criticism for violating its mandates as any other state member. The Catholic Church is responsible for the blatant sexual abuse of children throughout the world. Its bishops, including bishops at the Vatican capital, are guilty of many crimes in trying to obstruct the justice of exposing and bringing to trial the clerical perpetrators of sexual abuse against young people wherever the church has membership.

    Though the Vatican may ignore its own canons concerning these sexual predators, the additional subordination of any members, clerical or lay, to the laws of any states in which the Catholic Church is represented remains. Those other justice systems where branches of the Catholic Church exist, as in the United States, do not lose the full force of their laws, not even when, for lack of equity in practice, they are not processed by the Vatican Church itself.

    No fair person, no state, has publicly excused the Vatican or its bishops for not proceeding morally and ethically, following its own canons, against its violating clergy, priests or bishops, or trying to hide their crimes against youth.

    The fact that the Catholic Church is a state with members in other states throughout the world in no way excuses the ways it has overlooked or tried to hide the crimes of its members. Religion and churches certainly cannot claim a history that is without as many blemishes as any other human endeavor. That is especially true because striving to be moral and ethical is the church’s publicly stated official purpose.

    Autonomy as a state does not erase responsibility to morals and ethics, to its own canons, to the the laws of countries in which it has followers, or to nation groups like the U.N. it has sought to join.

  • And the Archbishop of Dublin was passed over when cardinal hats were handed out by Pope Benedict. That was obviously one of Benedict’s displays of retribution to others who were climbing the episcopal ladder not to quarrel with the headquarters of the papal state.

    The Catholic Church has practiced the greatest secrecy of any organization in the world, despite demonizing the Masons for the same, ever since the non-Christian Emperor Constantine took over the early Jesus communities at his Council of Nicaea in 325 for political purposes–long before the Reformation.

    The Catholic church has no semblance of a Freedom of Information Act. It even hides things after being ordered by courts to produce them during the discovery process.

  • So “Catholic” to treat the criminal behavior of the nuns and others running those Magdalene factories so lightly. They were very accurate documentaries. The churches continue in evil because that evil is defended or ignored by happily blinded members. If churches are not communities seeking goodness, they are misfits.

  • “There is no confusion about the status of the Catholic Church as a state.”…. “President Franklin Roosevelt decided to have a “personal representative” with that “city state” during the tumultuous times surrounding World War II. And President Ronald Reagan questionably raised that personal representative status to full ambassador.”

    Sadly this is true. It has been grandfathered in as an exception to the general rule that religions are not accorded such privileges. It is way past time for the Catholic Church to join the post medieval world, and stop being indulged by the nation state system. The books and accounts should be open and audited, and the passports and diplomatic pouches abolished.

    Catholic individuals in the United States are citizens like all others, but their Church is neither a citizen nor a state. This was in fact the case until the the two World Wars of the Twentieth Century demanded other priorities. We should simply return to our historic tradition of separation of church and state.

  • In Canada, the norms on suspected abuse require that anyone who is aware of a crime being committed must first call the police and social services agencies. That’s the first call. Then Church officials are to be notified. I assumed this was the norm everywhere. Also, the Vatican can’t possible know of everything going on and it really is up to the local bishops to deal with these situations. I would say, regardless of what the UN thinks about this, that bishops who are found to have covered up abuse should be removed. That only seems like common sense.

  • When McAleese was in the position to speak out years ago, as with her counterpart Mary Robinson, she would’ve been more credible as far as I’m concerned.

  • I totally agree, and I’m sure QC Geoffrey Robinson would too.
    I’d like to know what thoughts he has now……..

  • The Vatican would be fully aware of what was going on, and precisley through the Apostolic Nuncio, our previous one refused to be questioned in Ireland claiming diplomatic immunity, leaving Australia before one inquiry got off the ground, [with his successor to face the music who then did the same], now taking his chances in the Palestinian /Israel conflict.

  • I, for one, am pleased that the UN is shining a spot light on the dark under-belly of our church and it’s valuing an ecclesial bella figura over the wellbeing of our most vulnerable members, not to mention basic justice. We need to recognize that our leadership is stuck in an adolescent state of being that is self centered, self referential, and self protecting. Let’s hope this report generates more than the typical knee jerk defensiveness and open to serious reflection and dependence.

  • Right here is the perfect web site for anybody who really wants to understand this topic.
    You know so much its almost tough to argue with you (not that I personally will
    need to…HaHa). You certainly put a brand new spin on a topic
    which has been written about for many years. Wonderful stuff, just wonderful!