One way Pope Francis could move ahead with his aim of curbing clergy sex abuse in the worldwide Catholic Church would be to insist that the Holy See comply with the international human-rights treaty it signed to protect the rights of the child. Since nearly every country in the world (other than the United States) has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1989 treaty sets a clear international standard for Catholic bishops everywhere.
The treaty requires this: “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” Responding to complaints from survivors of sex abuse in the United States, Mexico, Australia, and Western Europe, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child determined that the Holy See had violated that standard. “The Committee is particularly concerned that in dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse, the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above the child’s best interests, as observed by several national commissions of inquiry,” it said in a 2014 report.
Five years later, the passage of time shows how deeply flawed the Vatican’s response was. The Vatican asserted that it had “carefully delineated policies and procedures designed to help eliminate such abuses and to collaborate with respective State authorities to fight against this crime.” It’s clear those policies were porous and follow-through was sluggish. Today, Vatican officials are still looking for the elusive “turning point.” Hopes are now pinned on February’s Vatican summit with the presidents of bishops’ conferences, and on subsequent measures Pope Francis has announced.
In the meantime, the Papal Commission for the Protection of Minors made the Convention on the Rights of the Child the foundation of guidelines that, in 2016, it sought for adoption by bishops’ conferences and religious orders around the world. But Marie Collins, a former member of the papal commission, said in an email interview that Vatican authorities would not permit the guidelines to be sent directly to the bishops’ conferences. “The Commission was told [the guidelines] could be put on the website and recommended as a resource,” she said, adding that this fell short of what the commission intended: that bishops be required to use the guidelines as a template for their procedures to protect children from sexual abuse.
The papal commission still promotes the UN document on its website, underlining the sentence “The Holy See is a signatory to this Convention.” At the same time, the UN committee’s criticisms continue to be explained away at the Vatican, and the Holy See has missed the UN’s deadline to respond to questions its experts still have.
Despite some recent progress, the reforms Pope Francis has made in the five years since the UN report was issued—in March, he required that clergy and religious report sex-abuse allegations to church authorities, and in 2016 he set out how church law could be used to remove negligent bishops—fall short of the changes UN experts urged. These experts called for the Vatican to comply with the treaty by creating clear rules for mandatory reporting of sex-abuse allegations to law-enforcement authorities, and ensuring “that all victims obtain redress and have an enforceable right to compensation.”
The Holy See Press Office and the papal nuncio at the UN in Geneva, who represents the Vatican in the UN human rights inquiries, did not respond to requests for comment. But I asked the Rev. Hans Zollner, who has been a point person for Pope Francis on the issue of clergy sex abuse, about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child after he gave a presentation in New York on March 26.
Why can’t the pope just require that bishops around the world adopt the standards set in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which have been accepted by nearly every country in the world? “You don’t need to repeat that because this is in the Gospel,” Zollner responded, adding, “the Catholic Church in India, in Africa, in Asia is the one promoter of child dignity more than any other institution.”
I asked again whether it would make sense to require that bishops adhere to certain basic standards. Zollner, who has responded to attacks on Pope Francis from all sorts of critics, and who has to cope with varied levels of support from different Vatican offices, sounded a touch exasperated. He maintained that the standards already exist. “The point is, how do you live up to it?” he said. “And this you cannot enforce by policing. Ultimately that is the challenge. We have everything set. We don’t need a new tribunal for charging the negligence of bishops because it is there. We can already do that. The point is: do you really want to do that, and how do we do that, and how do we communicate it because it has been done, but it has not been communicated.”
The German Jesuit has traveled to dozens of countries and helped organize two major conferences in Rome to get the world’s bishops on board in the effort against clergy sex abuse of minors. He has been trying to convince bishops in parts of the developing world that this is not simply a Western problem.
But survivors of clergy sexual abuse have criticized what they regard as foot-dragging at the Vatican, and the UN has been open to their petitions. “Rape and torture are crimes around the entire world, so I don’t think this is a question of cultural values,” said Katherine Gallagher, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who has been active in bringing the survivors’ petitions to UN human rights agencies since 2010, representing the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
Since the Holy See’s immunity as a sovereign state has made it difficult to hold the Vatican accountable in national courts, Gallagher first brought a case to the International Criminal Court and later to the UN committees that monitor the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture.
At UN sessions held in Geneva, the chief assertion from the Vatican has been that the two human-rights treaties it signed apply only to Vatican City and papal diplomats, not to church operations around the world. “All State Parties should be troubled by the fact that the Committee, contrary to the Treaty and basic principles of international law, has attempted to expand, in a unilateral and systematic way, its mandate, and, in turn has created new treaty obligations for State Parties,” the Secretariat of State told the UN’s Committee against Torture in 2015. It argues that implementing the treaty outside Vatican City “could constitute a violation of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of States.”