As a party to the Convention Against Torture (CAT) since 2002, the Holy See has a legal obligation to take international responsibility for its acts and omissions covered by the convention. Essentially, the Holy See must strive to uphold the CAT’s central tenet of working to counteract torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including sexual abuse. This objective may be achieved through adequate monitoring, reporting, and disciplining of those who perpetrate tortuous acts. The Holy See’s move to ratify the Convention was strategic following its exposure to intense criticism in 2001 in the face of the first wave of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, but it is finding that upholding its obligations is much more difficult. The Committee’s scathing critique emphasizes that as a CAT signatory, the Holy See can no longer hide behind empty rhetoric and disingenuous concern for courageous survivors of child sex abuse.
The issue of clergy sexual abuse was addressed on an international scale last Friday when the United Nations Committee on the Convention Against Torture issued a seething review of the Holy See’s yearly report. The Committee found that Vatican officials failed to properly report child sex abuse charges, shuffled priests to different dioceses rather than disciplining them, and failed to pay adequate compensation to survivors of child sex abuse.
Among the Holy See’s arguments rejected by the Committee was the contention that the Holy See is only obligated to uphold the CAT’s objectives within Vatican City, thereby neglecting all other geographic locations served by its officials. Furthermore, the Holy See maintained that the rape and sexual abuse committed by its officials did not amount to torture. Flatly rejecting both arguments, the Committee noted that the Holy See’s 440,000 priests throughout the world are officials acting on behalf of the Holy See, and that the systematic cover-up of child sex abuse committed by the Holy See could indeed amount to torture.
The Holy See’s attempts to justify its inexcusable behavior is disheartening. As the face of an organization supposedly dedicated to upholding the highest of morals, the Holy See certainly failed to do so when it shirked responsibility for and minimized the impact of the child sex abuse perpetrated by its officials. However, it is so important and encouraging that the committee is holding the Holy See accountable internationally for its egregious acts and omissions regarding child sex abuse. It is our hope that the Holy See genuinely considers the Committee’s feedback and makes positive changes in order to prevent further harm to children throughout the world.