Missed Opportunity

Where the UN Report on the Vatican Goes Wrong

Earlier this month, the United Nations committee that monitors compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child issued a stinging report criticizing the Vatican for its handling of the sexual-abuse crisis. The committee accused the Holy See of “systematically” placing the reputation of the church ahead of the welfare of children, and adopting “policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by, and the impunity of, the perpetrators.” In addition the report made several important recommendations the Holy See would do well to heed. But the UN committee weakened its case by weighing in on doctrinal matters unrelated to abuse. The committee’s scattershot approach has united critics across the ideological spectrum in criticizing the report as counterproductive, if not worse.

The committee’s first mistake is that it treats the Holy See like any other signer of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which contains fifty-four articles covering a range of issues. Wherever the committee sees that a signer is failing to abide by the convention, it makes recommendations to bring them into compliance. For example, the report recommends that the church provide “family planning, reproductive health, as well as adequate counselling and social support, to prevent unplanned pregnancies.” And it asks the church to review canon law “with a view to identifying circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.” Even though the committee refers to the Holy See’s “special nature,” it seems not to grasp that Catholic canon law is not just an administrative tool; it is informed by deeply held religious beliefs. In some cases, changing canon laws would require changing Catholic doctrine, a fact the UN seems not to appreciate.

It’s strange enough for a UN committee to make doctrinal recommendations to a religious organization. But it’s even more puzzling that the committee seems to forget that the Vatican has never hidden its objections to certain aspects of the convention. When the Holy See signed the treaty in 1989, it stated its reservations about provisions that don’t conform to Catholic teaching. The Holy See explicitly warned that the only family planning it would promote was natural family planning. Several other signatories registered similar reservations—including Islamic countries that promised to ignore parts of the treaty they deemed contradictory to Sharia law.

Even when the committee offers sound suggestions, it shows little interest in context. The report asks the Vatican to establish “clear rules, mechanisms and procedures for the mandatory reporting of all suspected cases of child sexual abuse and exploitation to law enforcement authorities.” That’s a good idea. But the UN committee fails to acknowledge that not all countries have trustworthy law-enforcement agencies. That’s one reason some dioceses—in Africa, for example—have not implemented mandatory-reporting rules. Shouldn’t a UN committee show some awareness of that?

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, has highlighted the committee’s misunderstanding of the “specific nature of the Holy See.” He complained that the report failed to acknowledge the Vatican’s ongoing efforts to address the sexual-abuse scandal. “Few other organizations or institutions, if any, have done as much,” Lombardi wrote. In fact, the UN committee does “welcome” some of the those efforts—including the Holy See’s new Commission for the Protection of Minors and changes to Vatican City State law regarding the abuse of minors. And while Lombardi is correct in noting that the Catholic Church has lately gone to great lengths to address the crime of sexual abuse, Rome didn’t lead the charge. Bishops were shamed into action by victims of abuse and by the media.

The generally moderate tone of Lombardi’s response is to be welcomed, but it was a mistake for him to suggest that the report’s shortcomings are proof of anti-Catholic bias. Historically, that charge has too often been used by Rome to dismiss the gravity of the sexual-abuse crisis. Despite its flaws, the UN report contains legitimate criticisms that the Vatican needs to hear.

The sexual-abuse crisis is far from over. Pope Francis still hasn’t named the members of the sexual-abuse commission he created in December. With the Italian bishops recently refusing to adopt mandatory-reporting rules for their clergy, and some U.S. bishops still mishandling abuse claims with impunity, the pope’s commission has its work cut out for it. The UN report could have helped by reminding the entire church that reform is still needed. Because of the report’s obtuse recommendations concerning church doctrine, however, it is likely to strengthen the hand of those who think the sexual-abuse crisis has been overblown by enemies of the church. These hardliners are still looking for an excuse to keep things exactly as they are. The UN report’s lack of focus has unintentionally given them one.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Thank you for this editorial, from which the Church's PR machine could well learn.

I cannot help but think that the bishops' root problem is a lack of empathy with the victims. The analog of a defective product comes to mind. If I hear in the media about defective baby formula in China, I feel a twinge of sadness; but I don't know the victims and I certainly don't  associate myslef directly with the dead infant or their poverty-stricken parents. This appears in some ways to be their lot in life and I have some vague reassurance that the appropriate international body will wag its finger in the proper direction.

The bishops, sadly still, are responding with the glacial speed more appropriately oriented to theological discussions. They act like the CEOs (of the old school), who ignore and then paper-over product defects. And make no mistake, this is a significant product defect with which we are living.

Rather, they should read a business school case study about the Tylenol scare some decades ago. In that case, managers were rewarded for removing the defective product as quickly as possible. The customers came first; and the managers who didn't understand that imperative in the culture of the organization were soon gone. In the end, the brand was reinforced and grew unconstrained by suspicion.

My church appears to be in denial and paper-over mode. My divisional CEOs always have a reason for delay and deflect. I can only be left to assume that they aren't truly connected to their customers.

These defective products need to get off the shelf before another customer is destroyed for life, or the culture should demand that the offending manager be removed with great shame. Otherwise, the culture will continue to wither at an alarming rate.

Thank you for this balamced critique of the UN panels report and the Vatican's response. Indeed, by grossly getting off the critical subject of child sex abuse the UN report diminished its impact. Fr. Lombardi's response seemed measured and did not close any doors for future cooperation of the Vatican and the UN in addressing the issue of child abuse not only within the Church but throughout the world. It also rightly admonished the UN that religious doctrine is not within its mandate or purview. I believe the full response of the Vatican to the report, which is due "within weeks," will provide more details on what further steps the Vatican may be taking to help protect children throughout the Church, as well as, I hope, an even stronger defense of the Church's religious freedom to not be pressured by secular institutions to change doctrine. I eagerly await their full response.

No matter what one thinks of the UN Commission Report the Vatcan can be grateful Jesus was not on the Commission.  He is quoted as sayig that anyone who causes scandal to children should have a millstone tied around his neck and dropped into the sea.  I think child rape or other foms of sexual exploitation of chidren qualifiy as a cause for scandal

As you mention, althugh this report is a mess, it remains for Pope Francis to follow through in some radical ways in reforms. Accepting tthe retirement of Bp. Finn and others must be be a start. His credibility in "The Joy of the Gospel" nd in genral depends upon a successful implementation of radical reforms.




The general tone of the UN report is discriminatory and biased against Catholics, and, make no mistake, discrimination against the Catholic Church and Catholics themselves is spreading with impunity.  The media, which decries a laundry list of civil rights violations, looks the other way when Catholics are discriminated against,and in fact participates in it.  This is because the Catholic Church is immutable in its support of the right to life from conception to natural death, in it's support of traditional marriage, in it's support for the tradtional family. 

Catholics are being sacrificed to the God of political correctness, and Commonweal is complicit when it uses euphemisms, such as "lack of focus," to describe the UN report's attack on the Church.  It's not at all a "lack of focus."  It's deliberate discrimination borne of an intense dislike of anything Catholic.

The sexual abuse of children by anyone is heinous, but it was not brought on by Catholicism; it is the product of the culture of the 20th century, the culture that reared its ugly head to attack the sacredness of marriage as a lifetime committment between one man and one woman and the right to life of the unborn.  The Catholic Church has done more than any other organization or institution to eradicate this filth, and I'm glad of that, because the Church is the most important place to safeguard.

The UN need not go after the Church; instead it needs to root out and expose the source of its anti-Catholicism.  The UN needs to clean its own house.


"The generally moderate tone of Lombardi’s response is to be welcomed, but it was a mistake for him to suggest that the report’s shortcomings are proof of anti-Catholic bias. Historically, that charge has too often been used by Rome to dismiss the gravity of the sexual-abuse crisis. Despite its flaws, the UN report contains legitimate criticisms that the Vatican needs to hear."

As a physician who has met many who have been sexually abused by priests, I appreciate that the editors of Commonweal Magazine realize that clergy sexual abuse is a serious problem around the world, especially in developing countries, where people have no voice.

As a Catholic, I am sad that even Pope Francis is not following the command of Jesus to protect the innocence of children. Instead, Pope Francis is protecting his Archbishop Wesolowski from facing charges of sexually abusing young boys in Poland and in the Dominican Republic, where he was the papal nuncio.

The pope has shown NO CARE for the young boys who have been sexually abused. The pope says that his archbishop will be investigated in the Vatican. How wrong-headed is that? Police, not the church, need to investigate crimes and criminals.

The pope and church must become accountable to international and civil law. The pope cannot be allowed to investigate his own crimes and criminals. He can no longer be allowed to be his own law.

Repeatedly, the church has abused its authority, as it has protected the sexual predator clergy and ignored/re-victimized the victims. There must be an end to the state status of the church. It is only a religion and does not deserve diplomatic immunity, especially when that claim to having diplomatic immunity is made to escape the law that is meant to protect children from sexual abuse.

The pope and hierarchy have to give all files on clergy sexual abuse in the Vatican and elsewhere to legal and law enforcement officials for investigation and prosecution. Only then will I believe that the church has regained some integrity and credibility.

Sincerely,   Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, M.D., Chicago

The use of the biblical passage referencing "better for him if a milllstone be put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea" as a guide for the Church's dealing with priests accused of sex offenses with minors requires a highly selective reading of scripture.  That passage at Luke 17:2 immediately precedes the following admonition of Christ to his disciples at Luke 17:3,4:  "Be on your guard!  If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, "I am sorry,' you should forgive him.  

The approach of the Italian bishops refraning from reporting "all suspected cases" of accusations against clergy to civil prosecutors is in sharp contarct to American bishops who have become willing participants in an American penal system that features:  draconiajn mandatory penalties for anyone convicted os such offenses; the daunting risks for an accused of a not-guilty plea when that plea will be considered an aggravating factor in any subsequent sentencing decision; the near impossibility of selecting an impartial American jury untainted by the unrelenting media coverage of clergy sex oaccusations where the presumption of innocense is never mentioned;    the likelihood of a decades long sentence to incarceration which will be served in isolation from the general prison population due to the substantial risk of death at the hands of a fellow inmate as was inflicted on John Geoghan; and, in the minority of cases where a priest survives his sentence, the likelihood that the remainder of his life will be spent as a social pariah,  honeless, living under a highway overpass or worse due to residence restrictions on registered sex offenders.

I suppose it will be for the Vatican to decide whether the Italian or American approach is more in keeping with the teachings of Christ.      

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment