Vatican faces UN grilling on child sex abuse

The Vatican is gearing up for a bruising showdown over the global priest sex abuse scandal, forced for the first time to defend itself at length and in public against allegations it enabled the rape of thousands of children by protecting paedophile priests and its own reputation at the expense of victims.

The Holy See will today be grilled by a UN committee in Geneva on its implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Among other things, the treaty calls for signatories to take all appropriate measures to protect children from harm and put child-ren’s interests above all else.

The Holy See ratified the convention in 1990 and submitted a first implementation report in 1994. However, it did not provide progress reports for nearly a decade, and only submitted one in 2012 after coming under criticism following the 2010 explosion of child sex abuse cases in Europe and beyond.

Victims groups and human rights organisations rallied together to press the UN committee to challenge the Holy See on its abuse record, providing written testimony from victims. Their reports cite case studies in Mexico and Britain, grand jury investigations in the US, and government fact-finding inquiries from Canada to Ireland to Australia that detail how the Vatican’s policies, culture of secrecy, and fear of scandal contributed to the problem.

Their submissions reference Vatican documents that show its officials knew about a notorious Mexican molester decades before acting. They cite correspondence from a Vatican cardinal praising a French bishop’s decision to protect his abusive priest, and another Vatican directive to Irish bishops to strike any mandatory reporting of abusers to police from their policies.

The submissions even quote the former Vatican No 2 as saying bishops should not be expected to turn their priests in.

“For too many years, survivors were the only ones speaking out about this and bearing the brunt of a lot of criticism,” said Pam Spees, a human rights attorney for the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which provided a report to the committee.

“And so this is a very important moment for many, many people who are here in Geneva and around the world who will be watching as the Holy See is called for the first time ever to actually answer questions.”

To date, the Holy See has never had to defend its record to any large extent or in court, since it has successfully argued that it is immune from lawsuits as a sovereign state and that, regardless, bishops were responsible for paedophile priests in their care, not the Pope or his policies.

The UN committee, composed of independent experts, not other UN member states, will issue its final observations and recommendations on Feb 5. The recommendations are not binding and the committee has no ability to sanction the Vatican for any shortcomings. Rather, the process is aimed at encouraging — and occasionally shaming — treaty signatories into abiding by their international commitments.

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