U.N. mishandles Vatican on its handling of sex abuse

Last month, the Vatican presented a report on its efforts to deal with the abuse of minors in the church to the U.N.'s Committee on the Rights of the Child. There are so many problems with today's response from the Committee that it must be considered a lost opportunity to encourage the Holy See to do the right thing.

Vatican Coat of Arms

Vatican Coat of Arms

Last month, the Vatican presented a report on its efforts to deal with the abuse of minors in the church to the U.N.’s Committee on the Rights of the Child. There are so many problems with today’s response from the Committee that it must be considered a lost opportunity to encourage the Holy See to do the right thing.

These problems, ranging from the factual to the philosophical, have been specified in no uncertain terms by the distinguished English Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh. Not least among them is a profound confusion over the nature of the Catholic Church as an institution in the world. Consider the following statement:

While being fully conscious that bishops and major superiors of religious institutes do not act as representatives or delegates of the Roman Pontiff, the Committee nevertheless notes that subordinates in Catholic religious orders are bound by obedience to the Pope in accordance with Canons 331 and 590. The Committee therefore reminds the Holy See that by ratifying the Convention, it has committed itself to implementing the Convention not only on the territory of the Vatican City State but also as the supreme power of the Catholic Church through individuals and institutions placed under its authority.

The report thus proceeds to treat the Holy See as a state actor (the Vatican City State) wherever the church happens to be, holding it responsible for child protection in the way it would treat any country that is a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. That extends to making changes in canon law that go so far as to allow abortions for girls who become pregnant as the result of abuse.

Yet at the same time, the report recognizes that those subordinate to the Holy See operate under the legal system of other states. Indeed, the Holy See is called upon to “[e]stablish clear rules, mechanisms and procedures for the mandatory reporting of all suspected cases of child sexual abuse and exploitation to law enforcement authorities.”

Rather than try to get the Vatican to adapt longstanding and deeply held doctrines to the secular norms of the Convention, the Committee should have focused exclusively on the need for church institutions to treat accusations of sexual abuse in precisely the same way as secular institutions are required to treat them. And to treat officials who fail to follow the rules in exactly the same way secular officials are supposed to be treated.

The abuse crisis came about precisely because the church is accustomed to operate as a state within states. The way to end it is for all to agree that it can do so no longer.

Update: Over at  National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters corrects me for suggesting that the Vatican City State, not the Holy See, is the juridical actor in question. That is to say, it’s the Holy See, not Vatican City, that signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child — which is to say, the top authority in Roman Catholicism is in some sense on the hook. But to use this legal formality as the basis for treating the Holy See as if it were a state like any other state is worth than idiotic. It’s counterproductive.