This week in Geneva, the United Nation's Committee on the Rights of the Child is hearing closed-door testimony about official Catholicism's compliance with the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. One of almost 200 signatories to the convention, the Holy See (the formal name of the Vatican state) is fifteen years late in delivering a report describing whether it has acted to "protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence" as the convention requires. Victims of sexually abusive priests, their advocates, various American grand juries, Irish government investigators and their counterparts in other countries have turned up ample evidence that it has not.
The decades-long international scandal of sexual abuse and cover-ups by higher church authorities is so familiar that by now it requires little recounting. It's sufficient to say that thousands of priests have been judged credibly accused by the church itself, which has paid billions of dollars to settle legal claims filed by victims. In America, roughly five hundred clergy have been convicted of crimes against children. In Ireland, the scandal is so great it has ruptured the historically tight bond between the state and the church. In Australia the parliament has begun a broad inquiry into sex crimes committed by Catholic clergy, which Cardinal George Pell of Sydney recently termed "a horrendous widespread mess."
A global problem, the mess has eluded many efforts to clean it up, in part because of the strange status of the church. Spread across the world, and managed by a top-down hierarchy, it is comprised of thousands of corporate entities, from individual parishes to the Vatican bank. When sued by victims of child abuse, church officials prefer the institution be treated as a local entity, which means that higher authorities and the larger fortune held by various Catholic bureaucracies are protected. However, individual bishops accused of cover-ups, have sometimes found it convenient to point to authorities in distant Rome, shifting the moral burden to them when it seems like priest abusers were allowed, or even helped to evade responsibility for their acts. (In fact, the Vatican generally does have final say over the institutional response to claims against priests.)
To make matters more complicated, the Roman Catholic Church has long benefitted from the fact that alone among the world's religions it enjoys the legal protections -- including diplomatic immunity -- afforded to more ordinary nations. Sovereignty has allowed Catholic authorities to escape prosecution and civil complaints related to sexual abuse. It has also permitted the transfer of sensitive documents, from country to country, via sealed and inviolable diplomatic shipments.
First recognized in a treaty with Mussolini's Italy, the state that is the Holy See can claim precious few resident citizens and its sovereign territory is restricted to the few acres that comprise the Vatican. Nevertheless it maintains a substantial role in world affairs. It is in this arena where both the Catholic Church and the Vatican state are now under intense pressure. Two years ago victims of priest abusers asked the International Criminal Court to open an investigation of the global problem of clergy abuse. This request was recently denied. However the proceedings of the International Committee on the Child offer a new forum for the world to consider the pattern of crime and cover-up.
The American advocates who have been invited to testify in Geneva are Barbara Blaine and David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which is the largest and oldest support organization victims of clergy abuse. In a written report to the committee developed in conjunction with the new York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, SNAP refers to thousands of abuse cases involving as many as 100,000 victims worldwide. Blaine and Clohessy can testify to the consistent pattern of delay and evasion found when accusations come to light. In dioceses around the world, the playbook called for transferring accused priests, closed-door negotiations with victims and parents, and secret settlements. Other responses, seen around the world, have included aggressive action to avoid civil authorities and the destruction of incriminating documents.
The two Americans may also tell the committee that despite official claims that the church has reformed its practices, new allegations of abuse and cover-up arise on a frequent basis. In 2011 a grand jury in Philadelphia reported that years after reported reforms, dozens of credibly accused abusers remained in ministry. The facts in the Philadelphia report, first contested but later confirmed by church officials, are consistent with more recent cases in Newark, New Jersey and Australia.
Finally, Clohessy and Blaine can explain, in clear terms, why an organization that supervises thousands of abusers may be complicit in what amounts to crimes against humanity. Although some church officials, and their defenders downplay the nature of these assaults -- using terms like "touching" and "fondling" -- many involve acts of rape and all constitute profound violations of a child's physical, emotional, and spiritual integrity. Akin to incest -- priests are called "father" -- child sexual abuse can be a major factor in lifelong problems with substance abuse, depression, social isolation, and more.
The wreckage caused by clergy abuse of children has been identified. So far, those at the highest levels of the hierarchy have evaded responsibility, even though they are the ultimate authorities of the institutional church. In signing on to the convention on the rights of the child, the Holy See exercised its prerogative as a nation state. In pursuing the truth about the Vatican's response to child abuse committed by priests, the United Nations has the opportunity to hold the Holy See accountable to the standards accepted by all the signatories.