VATICAN CITY — The Vatican “systematically” adopted policies that allowed priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children over decades, a UN human rights committee said Wednesday, urging the Holy See to open its files on pedophiles and bishops who concealed their crimes.
In a devastating report hailed by abuse victims, the UN committee severely criticized the Holy See for its attitudes toward homosexuality, contraception and abortion and said it should change its own canon law to ensure children’s rights and their access to health care are guaranteed.
The Vatican promptly objected and its UN ambassador accused the committee of having betrayed the international body’s own objectives by allowing itself to be swayed by pro-gay ideologues. He said it appeared the committee simply hadn’t listened when the Holy See outlined all the measures it has taken to protect children.
The report puts renewed pressure on Pope Francis to move decisively on the abuse front and make good on pledges to create a Vatican commission to study sex abuse and recommend best practices to fight it. The commission was announced in December.
The committee issued its recommendations after subjecting the Holy See to a daylong interrogation last month on its implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the key UN treaty on child protection, which the Holy See ratified in 1990.
Critically, the committee rejected the Vatican’s longstanding argument that it doesn’t control bishops or their abusive priests, saying the Holy See was responsible for implementing the treaty not just in the Vatican City State but around the world “as the supreme power of the Catholic Church through individuals and institutions placed under its authority.”
In its report, the committee blasted the “code of silence” that has long been used to keep victims quiet, saying the Holy See had “systematically placed preservation of the reputation of the church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims.” It called on the Holy See to provide compensation to victims and hold accountable not just the abusers, but also those who covered up their crimes.
“The committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by, and the impunity of, the perpetrators,” the report said.
It called for Francis’ nascent abuse commission to conduct an independent investigation of all cases of priestly abuse and the way the Catholic hierarchy has responded over time, and urged the Holy See to establish clear rules for the mandatory reporting of abuse to police and to support laws that allow victims to report crimes even after the statute of limitations has expired.
No Catholic bishop has ever been sanctioned by the Vatican for sheltering an abusive priest, and only in 2010 did the Holy See direct bishops to report abusers to police where law enforcement requires it. Vatican officials have acknowledged that bishop accountability remains a major problem and have suggested that under Francis, things might begin to change.
The committee’s recommendations are non-binding and there is no enforcement mechanism. Instead, the UN asked the Vatican to implement the recommendations and report back by 2017. The Vatican was 14 years late submitting its most recent report.
The committee is made up of independent experts, not other UN member states — the case on the larger and often politicized UN Human Rights Council, which also sits in Geneva. The Committee on the Rights of the Child is one of 10 UN bodies that monitor implementation of the core UN human rights treaties, and its 18 members include academics, sociologists and child development specialists from around the globe.