No one is above the law

The UN said Church rules are not in conformity with provisions relating to children's rights to be protected against discrimination, violence and all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Earlier this week the United Nations watchdog for children's rights slammed the Vatican for "systematically" adopting policies allowing priests to sexually abuse thousands of children, in a report which also urged the Holy See to review its legislation to bring it line with international conventions.

The report itself was uncharacteristically outspoken for an official document of its kind, and this may in a sense have undermined its main objective. For while the Vatican has so far not commented publicly on its contents, reactions by leading Catholic commentators have seized on its tone to criticise the UN for 'overstepping its remit'.

Austen Ivereigh, of Catholicvoices.org, described the report as "ignorant and misguided", adding that it sought "to impose an ideology of gender and sexuality in violation of the UN's own commitment to religious freedom". Local bishop Charles Scicluna, who headed the Vatican's own prosecution against suspected offender in child abuse cases, appears to agree with this sentiment, as evidenced by a supportive tweet.

Certainly the UN report does appear to go beyond the immediate issue of bringing known or suspected paedophiles to justice. Its recommendations extend to urging the Vatican to change its policies on contraception and women's rights, including abortion: something which is clearly outside the remit of a UN committee on the rights of the child.

This is unfortunate, as it allows the main subject of the study - the Church, or more specifically its defenders in the independent press - to respond by undermining the credibility of the institution which produced it, to the detriment of the main overall aim. Ivereigh even described the UN committee as a 'kangaroo court' - which is regrettable, considering that the United Nations is also the cradle of the Universal Charter of Human Rights, and is therefore arguably the only international body to preside over the jurisdiction of international law.

The UN treaties and conventions which underpin this Charter - which is itself entrenched in the local Constitution, making its regulations part of Malta's supreme article of legislation - cannot be so lightly dismissed, even if one accepts the charge that the authors of this report went beyond the parameters in which they were supposed to function.

Besides, the gist of this response overlooks the more serious implications. According to the UN committee for the rights of the child, "some of the rules of Canon Law are not in conformity with the provisions of the [Human Rights] Convention, in particular those relating to children's rights to be protected against discrimination, violence and all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse".

Given the seriousness of the matter at hand, one would expect this accusation to be taken more seriously. Among other things, the report highlights an institutionalised response to such cases by Churches worldwide, whereby local law may have been circumvented in favour of Canon law. Examples include known or suspected child abusers who were not reported to the police, and in some cases allowed to proceed with their activities, or even transferred to other dioceses to avoid detection. To make matters worse, the same report highlights flaws and shortcomings in the same Canon Law which is sometimes invoked instead of national legislation when dealing with cases involving the clergy.

Even in Malta there have been cases which attest to this duality of jurisdictions. When allegations first surfaced of systematic abuse of teenagers by members of the clergy at a Church-run home for boys in Santa Venera, the Curia's reaction was to set up a response team and conduct its own in-house investigations. Headed by a retired judge, the resulting Commission took years to conclude its investigations, and eventually exonerated the suspects involved in that case. By this time, however, the victims had filed a police report, and the result was that the same suspects were arraigned and eventually convicted on abuse charges.

Looking back at the circumstances it is hard to understand how any institution can be afforded the apparent right to investigate its own members for what amount to criminal acts. Certainly no other institution is empowered with such abilities.

If the suspects in this case were (for instance) school teachers or bank employees, it would be absurd to expect their employers to deal with the matter privately as if it were a purely internal affair. Criminal activity cannot by definition be treated as an internal matter: if laws are broken, they are the laws of the state, and not the internal regulations of any particular institution.

With the perspective of the UN report this can be placed in a global context whereby the Church seems to have adopted similar methods worldwide when faced with similar allegations. Now that many cases have been to light all over the world, the Church has revised this apparent policy, and one is inclined to accept a Curia spokesperson's comment that, "On a diocesan level, the Church in Malta remains committed to an effective child protection policy."

But the UN report suggests that more needs to be done to address the problem at source - i.e., by means of revisions to the Vatican's legal instruments - and finding fault with other aspects of the same report is hardly an appropriate response.

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What is strange is that this editoreial omits that the UN was also asking the Vatican to change its attitudes and teachings on homosexuality. Considering the fact that homophobia creates major psychological problems - especially for the young - a change in the Church's attitudes would go far in comforting a lot of soul. More and more evidence exists that at least part of the cause - and probably most of it - for homosexuality is genetic. This would completely wipe out the Church's attitude that it is a behaviour depending on choice, and therefore sinful and immoral. Considering the fact that gay teenagers attempt suicide at 30% higher rates than for the rest of the population, anyone concerned with protecting children from abuse should be insisting that the Church change its fundamental position.
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The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child considers the Church before a secular levels. The report makes no less than to expose the double standards of the Church. It shows point by point how the Church failed to protect the vulnerable and entrenched themselves behind to justify beliefs. It is very shameful for the Church when one reads, “The Committee is concerned that the Church has always made the reputation of the Church and the interests of the offender on the protection of children in dealing with sexual abuse.” As a particularly vicious example, the report cites Magdalene homes in Ireland. Young women were forced there till 1996 without pay to do hard physical work. And women were exposed to physical abuse. The UN criticizes, “Nothing has been done to investigate the behaviour of the nuns who ran the laundries, and it was not cooperating with government investigators, in order to draw for the abuse charge and those accountable to that of the working Girls benefited.” And the UN criticizes the Church´s negligence in dealing with the perpetrators. They have been protected by internal transfers or were even transferred abroad. And the report noted that families whose children were abused in Catholic institutions have been intimidated by religious authorities. The desired objective was to intimidate the victims and their families. Instead, the victim should be encouraged and supported. If the Church really wants to protect children then the Holy See should open its files on members of the clergy who had “concealed their crimes” so that they could be held accountable by the authorities. Tens of thousands of children were abused worldwide by Catholic priests and members of religious orders. The report mentions, as already said above, “the practice of offenders mobility”, referring to the transfer of child abusers from parish to parish within countries. This practice placed children in many countries at high risk of sexual abuse. The world must express gratitude for this excellent report. Children are the weakest members of every society and they have the right to grow up in a peaceful and stable environment.