GENEVA – In a report that could expose the Catholic Church to new legal arguments by clerical sex abuse victims, a U.N. committee found Friday that the Vatican does exercise worldwide control over its bishops and priests and must comply with the U.N.’s anti-torture treaty.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture concluded that Vatican officials failed to report sex abuse charges properly, had moved priests rather than discipline them, and had failed to pay adequate compensation to victims. Although the panel did not explicitly say that the Holy See had violated any of its obligations under the anti-torture treaty, which it ratified in 2002, panel members said that was implicit in the criticism.
“Legal scholars will tell you that when the committee addresses a problem and makes a recommendation, it sees the state as not meeting the requirements of the convention,” the panel vice chair, Felice Gaer, told reporters. “It’s absolutely clear what we’re saying.”
But the Vatican dismissed the 10-member panel’s conclusions as “fundamentally flawed” and insisted it didn’t exercise direct control over its priests worldwide.
The report’s most immediate impact may be to empower victims pressing the Vatican to take more legal responsibility for priests who raped and molested children. The Holy See long has sought to distance itself from the conduct of pedophile priests and the bishops overseeing them, saying the church’s own structure isn’t the centrally organized, top-down hierarchy that the lawyers for victims have often described.
Earlier this month, the Holy See revealed to the committee that it had defrocked 848 priests and imposed lesser penalties on 2,572 others since 2004. Those figures reflected only those complaints handled directly by the Holy See, not those left in the hands of dioceses, so the total number of sanctioned priests worldwide could be much higher.
Crucially, the committee rejected the Holy See’s position that it should be legally liable for enforcing the treaty only within the tiny confines of Vatican City itself. Church leaders consistently have argued that legal responsibility for abuse lies with the bishops and the leaders of individual congregations of priests, nuns and brothers.
The committee said the Vatican, like all parties to the treaty, must ensure that the treaty isn’t violated by its representatives anywhere worldwide. It said the Vatican’s contention that it did not enforce control over church personnel outside Vatican City borders was “not consistent” with the treaty or the Vatican’s own laws.
The Vatican stressed that the committee’s report had not explicitly stated whether it believes that rape and sexual abuse constitute a form of torture and therefore violate the treaty obligations. It said the U.N. report makes “an implicit fundamental assumption” that any sexual abuse is equivalent to torture, an assumption not supported by the treaty.