Thoughts on UN report blasting Vatican

By John L. Allen Jr.

A keenly anticipated U.N. report on the Vatican’s handling of the child sex abuse scandals that have rocked Catholicism for more than a decade is out today, Feb. 5, and it’s the verbal equivalent of a public flogging.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child accuses the Vatican of “not acknowledging” the extent of the crimes committed, of imposing policies that allowed abuse to continue, and of fostering “impunity” for abusers.

The panel issues a host of recommendations, including that a new papal commission on the protection of children should not only investigate cases of abuse but “the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them.”

The report also flags a number of problem areas, such as the practice of clergy moving around to dodge accusations.

“The practice of offenders’ mobility, which has allowed many priests to remain in contact with children and to continue to abuse them, still places children in many countries at high risk of sexual abuse,” the report claims.

“Dozens of child sexual offenders are reported to be still in contact with children,” it said.

The report condemns the Vatican for imposing what it calls a “code of silence” on abuse claims, which in practice, the committee says, meant these crimes were rarely reported to the police.

Here’s the report’s bottom line, in item 43: “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.”

Victims’ groups are hailing the report.

“For the safety of children, we hope every head of state on the planet reads this and acts on it,” said a statement from the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Two quick observations on the report.

One, it follows a Jan. 16 hearing in Geneva in which Italian Archbishop Silvano Tomasi and Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta appeared before the Committee on the Rights of the Child on behalf of the Vatican.

Tomasi vowed that the Catholic church today wants to be “an example of best practice” in the fight against child abuse, while Scicluna insisted that Catholicism now recognizes a “non-negotiable principle” of paramount concern for the well-being of children in its approach to wayward clergy.

In general, the back-and-forth that day suggested that the child protection experts who make up the UN panel felt that the Vatican, however belatedly, is moving in the right direction.

Sara De Jesus Oviedo Fierro of Spain, for instance, said at day’s end that the committee now has “great expectations that new steps will be taken, that dialogue with civil society will happen, [that] this will become a reality. This will attest to this new era, this new dawn for the Holy See.”

The written report doesn’t contain much reference to Tomasi and Scicluna’s testimony, and its tone is unsparingly critical – suggesting either that at least portions of it were actually drafted before the hearing took place, or that, upon reflection, the experts were less persuaded the Vatican has turned a corner than they seemed two weeks ago.

Second, the report seems destined to be read with skepticism in some Catholic circles because it also wades into the culture wars. At different points, the UN panel suggests that the Vatican modify, or even abandon, Catholic teaching on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and contraception.

Item #55 of the UN report, for instance, advises the Vatican to repeal canon 1398 of the Code of Canon Law, a provision that imposes the penalty of automatic excommunication for participation in abortion. At another point, the report suggests that Catholic venues should provide family planning services including birth control.

The Vatican is expected to issue a low-key statement, saying basically that they’ll take the report under advisement. Privately, however, some in Rome may suspect a political agenda behind the report in light of these excursions into the “life issues.”

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