Boys have been raped. Priests have lied. Bishops have been complicit in cover-ups. Evidence has been shredded, whistle-blowers undermined, silence has been bought and victims given false promises. And yet for all that, the blistering critique of the United Nations report on sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church may end up doing more harm than good.
The case against the church is clear. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child refers to tens of thousands of crimes by priestly abusers over several decades. It calls on the church to remove all abusers from active ministry, report them to the police and open its archives on the 4,000 cases which have been referred to the Vatican.
But the report naïvely, or ideologically, also blundered into a wider attack on Catholic teachings on contraception, homosexuality and abortion. That prompted the Vatican to respond with a forceful counterattack claiming the United Nations has gone beyond its proper area of competence — and, indeed, has violated the safeguards on religious freedom in its own Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The focus on child abuse has been lost in the row, with Vatican apologists tweeting about the Holy See being ambushed by a kangaroo court. The United Nations process, some said, had been driven by NGOs with an anti-Catholic agenda on reproductive rights. Dark remarks were made about getting the General Assembly to impose a code of conduct on United Nations human rights committees to make them more accountable.
All this has shifted attention from the key question: Is the church doing enough to deal with the abuse? Yet that is not the only reason that the United Nations committee may have made a tactical blunder by attacking wider Catholic values. For all the unified public pronouncements from church spokesmen, the reality is that behind the scenes the Vatican is deeply divided on the issue.
Some top church officials hold to the feeble nicety that the Holy See can only be held to account by the United Nations for what goes on in the limited territory of the Vatican city-state. Their argument, that they only have spiritual rather than juridical authority over the rest of the church, is deeply unconvincing to most outsiders. Religious superiors are bound by an oath of obedience to the pope, so there is a clear line of institutional accountability, and others in the Roman Curia know that.
The other big division inside the Vatican is on the issue of whether offending priests should be reported to the police or dealt with by internal procedures.
The United Nations report implies that the Vatican has done little to address the decades-long abuse scandal. But the truth is that it has taken significant steps in recent years. From 2001 it insisted that all priestly abuse cases be referred to Rome, where they were handled at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by the man who later became Pope Benedict XVI and who took an increasing hard line on the issue. In the final two years of his papacy he more than doubled the number of offenders being dismissed from the priesthood to almost 400. But his early instinct was to handle matters behind closed doors.
Only in 2010 did Benedict instruct dioceses to report suspect priests to the police and order local bishops to draw up new guidelines to protect children.
The procedures set in place in Britain after a report by Lord Nolan, the former chairman of that country’s Committee on Standards in Public Life, have become a worldwide benchmark on child protection. In America, background checks on adults and safe environment education for millions of Catholic children and church workers have seen cases of clerical sexual abuse tumble.
But elsewhere bishops have been slow to act. In Italy, anti-abuse guidelines were adopted only last month and they do not instruct bishops to report suspect priests to the police. Other bishops — in Africa, Asia and Latin America — have claimed, implausibly, that there are no sex abuse problems there.
Pope Francis last year announced a new church commission on the protection of minors. But he has yet to name its members or say what their brief will be.
The pope’s views are unclear. As an archbishop in Argentina, he took a hard line, saying offenders should be defrocked, and ridiculing the practice elsewhere of simply moving pedophile priests to new parishes. But he did not advocate involving the police, which is a key requirement of many victims groups, and on which the United Nations report has insisted.
In his first 11 months, Pope Francis has not once spoken publicly at any length on the issue. In private he has told officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to act decisively. But an archbishop and nuncio accused of sexually abusing boys in the Dominican Republic was not reported to the police there; instead he was recalled to the Vatican for prosecution.
Francis has sent mixed signals on what his new commission will do. Some officials suggest it will merely offer advice on prevention, psychiatric evaluation and the improved pastoral care of victims rather than offering new procedures for exposing and prosecuting abusers. But on Jan. 31 the pope told members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that they may soon be working with the new commission, suggesting it may have a prosecutor role.
What the United Nations report made clear is that to restore public faith in the church on this issue the pope must make reporting of offenders to the local police mandatory — and be prepared to discipline any bishop who fails to comply.
The sad irony is that the attack on wider Catholic values may have amplified the voices inside the Vatican of those who are advising him not to opt for full public transparency. If he heeds them, Pope Francis risks becoming part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
Paul Vallely is a director of The Tablet, the international Catholic weekly newspaper, a visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester, and author of the biography Pope Francis — Untying the Knots.