GENEVA — An independent United Nations panel on children’s rights accused the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday of shielding priests who’ve sexually abused tens of thousands of children worldwide and called on the Vatican to dismiss the perpetrators and refer them to civil authorities for prosecution.
The panel also urged the Vatican to review the church’s doctrine on abortion, saying its position forbidding abortion in any circumstance “places obvious risks on the life and health of pregnant girls,” and to revise its stance on homosexuality, saying its condemnation of same-sex relationships had led to harassment and violence against children.
The panel convened last month to study the Vatican’s adherence to the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international accord that the Vatican had signed, and the committee’s condemnation of the church’s actions on sexual abuse by clergy members had been widely expected.
But the international panel’s decision to delve into other issues of church doctrine and their impact on children marked a rare intrusion into what the church believes are matters of religion, ungoverned by whatever international agreements it may have acceded to.
In a statement, the Vatican said some points of the panel’s 16-page report were “an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of the human person and on the exercise of religious freedom.”
“The Holy See reiterates its commitment to defending and protecting the rights of the child,” the statement said, “in line with the principles promoted by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and according to the moral and religious values offered by Catholic doctrine.”
Including the Holy See, 193 countries have signed the convention, which grants jurisdiction to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child to fault member states for not meeting their obligations and to recommend steps to bring them into compliance. But it was unclear what the panel, which is chaired by Norwegian law professor Kirsten Sandberg, can do should the Vatican not follow its recommendations. It directed the Vatican to submit a report on its progress by September 2017.
The panel accused the church of covering up incidents of child abuse and instructed it to “immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment and refer the matter to the relevant law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution purposes.”
“Well-known sexual abusers have been transferred from parish to parish or to other countries in an attempt to cover up such crimes, a practice documented by numerous national commissions of inquiry,” the panel said.
That practice, it added, “has allowed many priests to remain in contact with children and to continue to abuse them."’
The panel also faulted the Vatican for dealing with child sex abuse through confidential proceedings, “providing for disciplinary measures which have allowed the vast majority of abusers and almost all those who concealed child sex abuse to escape judicial proceedings in states where abuses were committed.”
It observed that “due to 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 in countries where such crimes occurred.”
The panel said it hoped that a Vatican commission Pope Francis created in December “will investigate independently all cases of child sex abuse as well as the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy dealing with them,” and it instructed the Vatican to “ensure a transparent sharing of all archives which can be used to hold abusers accountable.”
It said the church must establish clear rules and procedures for the “mandatory reporting” of all suspected cases of child sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities.
Sandberg told a news conference that the Holy See has been “in breach of the convention up to now, because they have not done all the things they should have done.”
“Some are real violations of the convention,” she said, “like when you don’t follow up and protect children when you have the possibility to do so.”
Whether the church will respond to an international secular body on child sexual abuse any more than it’s responded to criticism from authorities in a number of countries is yet to be seen. The Vatican said it was still studying the report.
But there seems no chance that it would seriously reconsider its position on abortion or homosexuality. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, who led a Vatican delegation that appeared at a hearing the panel held last month, called the church’s moral teachings “non-negotiable” in comments to Vatican Radio in Rome.
Sandberg defended the panel’s discussion of church teachings on homosexuality and said the comments on abortion and contraception had to be viewed in the context of the church’s impact on children.
“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is something that we have raised with many states,” she said. “This is nothing special. We are not going outside the scope of the convention.”
The panel urged the church to review its stand on abortion “with the view to identifying circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.”
It also urged the Vatican to use its moral authority to condemn all forms of harassment, discrimination and violence against children based on their sexual orientation and to support global efforts to decriminalize homosexuality.
Sandberg, who teaches international law at the University of Oslo, said past Vatican statements on homosexuality had contributed to social stigmatization and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual adolescents.
Zarocostas is a McClatchy special correspondent.