The Church has failed to protect children but the UN report is seriously flawed

The UN human rights committee on the rights of the child delivering its report in Geneva (AP)

I was out and about yesterday, and so not at home to pick up the email from a television news programme asking me to give a live interview about the recent UN report on the Vatican and what is always known as “clerical sex abuse”.

If I had been available, what would I have said?

Any proper response would have to rely on a thorough reading of the entire UN report, something for which one does not have the time, nor, often, reports being what they are, the inclination. But one can rely on reports of the report, such as the one in the Daily Telegraph, or this unusually long, detailed and balanced one in the Guardian.

First a bit of background. This matter is not primarily about “clerical sexual abuse” per se. The Holy See is a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, and thus the UN has the right to monitor the way the Holy See implements this charter of rights. The committee’s remit is thus a broad one, enabling it to look at child welfare in toto, not just part of it. Of course it has chosen to focus on sexual abuse, and this is hardly surprising, as sexual abuse is a serious issue in child welfare, indeed the most serious issue.

That the Catholic Church has failed spectacularly in protecting children from abuse is well known; we are living with the results of this, and we will be living with the results of this for at least a generation. We failed. And having failed, we do not wish to deny we failed. Indeed, we are the sort of people who every day admit our failures before God and before the human community, as we say ‘mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.’ Because acknowledging truth is a Christian virtue, as is humility, it should not be a problem to admit our failures before anyone, or before the United Nations.

So, if the UN is criticising the past behaviour of the Church, and the Church has sinned, this is not the problem here. The real problem is that the UN in its report seems to be aiding the propagation of certain myths.

The first myth that needs nailing is as follows: if a priest abuses, his superiors will simply move him on, whereupon he will abuse again. This did once happen, as we all know; but it is certainly not happening in Britain today. If you abuse, you will be caught and punished. Other countries may be different. But in Britain we have robust structures in place to ensure that children are protected. So the committee’s words that follow need to be correctly interpreted:

“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 [emphasis added] at high risk of sexual abuse, as dozens of child sexual offenders are reported to be still in contact with children.”

In many countries, but not in all. There are some places where putting structures in place to ensure child protection is taking too long. These countries have problems across the board, we know, but still, they should get a move on, and not let the rest of the Church down. But it is simply not true across the worldwide Church that there is no realisation of the problem of ‘mobility’ and a determination to deal with it.

Therefore I think this conclusion of the committee is unjust and does not reflect the position in the global Church:

“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.”

Just how much research did they do, one wonders? Who did they talk to? Where is their evidence? In particular, re the ‘necessary measures’, did they look at the situation in England and Wales? Do they think the structures in place here are inadequate? If so, how?

The committee has no understanding of the difference between Holy See, Vatican and global Church, but let that pass. Rather look at their recommendations, which are, please note, non-binding, and in some important respects impossible to put into practice.

• All known and suspected child abusers must be immediately removed from their positions and the relevant civil law enforcement authorities notified. This reporting to civil authorities must be mandatory; clear rules and procedures should be set up to facilitate it; and all church employees must be taught that these obligations prevail over church law.
• Pope Francis’s commission should investigate independently all cases of abuse and “the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them”. It should consider appointing representatives of civil society and victims groups.
• Archives of past cases dealt with by the Holy See must be opened to allow for both the abusers and those who may have sought to conceal their crimes and “knowingly placed offenders in contact with children” to be held accountable.

The first has been implemented in many countries, though I would like to know what is meant by ‘known’ and ‘suspected’: known and suspected by whom? With what threshold of proof?

The second recommendation simply places too much of a burden on the Pope’s commission, the purpose of which is to work out broad strategies rather than deal with individual case, which – as the first recommendation points out – should be dealt with by the police anyway: so the second recommendation contradicts the first.

Thirdly, the archives: they should be opened, they say. To whom? Published on the Internet? Is this what the victims want? Are criminal cases of a similar nature in Britain treated in this way?

Finally, the committee really steps over the mark when they criticise the Church’s teaching on contraception and abortion. Yes, let us be clear about this: the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child wants the Church to loosen up on abortion, because, you know, abortion is what is good for children. Yeah, right.