On Wednesday, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child published a report strongly criticizing the Vatican for its handling of the sexual-abuse crisis. It hasn't gone over very well. John Allen argued that it might actually hurt the reform movement within the Catholic Church. Austen Ivereigh called the committee a "kangaroo court." (While I don't agree with everything Ivereigh has to say about the report--for example, he claims the Holy See has been a "catalyst" on abuse reform "at least since 2001"--he's catalogued its many mistakes.) Michael Sean Winters declared, "To hell with the UN." Mark Silk criticized the report for treating the Holy See as it would any other state, calling it "worse than idiotic. It's counterproductive."

Apart from that significant error, the report foolishly wades into doctrinal waters, suggesting the Vatican revise its teachings on abortion and contraception. The committee urges the Holy See to provide "family planning, reproductive health, as well as adequate counselling and social support, to prevent unplanned pregnancies." At one point the UN committee asks Rome to remove from Catholic-school textbooks "all gender stereotyping which may limit the development of the talents and abilities of boys and girls and undermine their educational and life opportunities." At another it complains that the Code of Canon Law refers to children born out of wedlock as "illegitimate." The report says that in canon law instances of sexual abuse ought to be "considered as crimes and not as 'delicts,'" seemingly ignorant of the fact that "delict" means crime. (The committee's work is so sloppy that it doesn't even seem to know where to cut off a quote: That part of the report reads, "Child sexual abuse, when addressed, has been dealt with as 'grave delicts against the moral' through confidential proceedings...")

Even when the committee bumps up against a good idea, it seems uninterested in context. For example, it asks Rome 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," but fails to note that the world's law-enforcement authorities are not all made in the image and likeness of North America's and Europe's. That's why some diocese--in Africa, for example--haven't implemented mandatory-reporting rules. Shouldn't a UN committee show some awareness of that?

Some of their confusions could have been cleared up with a few clicks of a mouse, or by speaking to someone who knows something about the inner workings of the church. Apparently that didn't occur to the them.

Today Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi, SJ, responded to the UN report, claiming that its missteps prove that the committee gave "much greater attention..to certain NGOs, the prejudices of which against the Catholic Church and the Holy See are well known." Not the most helpful formulation, especially given that some Vatican officials have dismissed the sexual-abuse scandal as a creation of an anti-Catholic press.

Still, the rest of the statement is relatively measured. Lombardi explains that the report fails to highlight several of the Vatican's recent efforts to come to terms with the scandal. It does, in fact, "welcome" some of those changes, including the creation of the Commission for the Protection of Minors and changes to Vatican City State law regarding the abuse of minors, but it has little to say about them. "Few other organizations or institutions, if any, have done as much," Lombardi claims. Maybe, but it isn't as though Rome led the charge. Bishops were shamed into action by victims and sustained media coverage of the abuse they suffered.

Lombardi also laments the committee's comments on church teaching, which "seem to go beyond its powers and to interfere in the very moral and doctrinal positions of the Catholic Church, giving indications involving moral evaluations of contraception, or abortion, or education in families, or the vision of human sexuality, in light of [the committee’s] own ideological vision of sexuality itself." Of course, he's right. And he doesn't even get into the report's errors of fact, like its assertion that because of "a code of silence imposed on all members of the clergy under penalty of excommunication, cases of child sexual abuse have hardly ever been reported to the law enforcement authorities."

The document is a mess, which is a shame because it contains legitimate criticisms that Rome needs to hear, and it could end up giving aid and comfort to curialists who still believe that the sexual-abuse crisis has been overblown by enemies of the church. 


Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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