Geneva - In its second grilling at the United Nations this year, the Vatican on Monday sought to limit its responsibility for the global priest sex abuse scandal by undercutting arguments it has violated an international treaty against torture and inhuman treatment.
The Vatican delegation's appearance in Geneva is the first time that the committee that oversees the UN Convention Against Torture, which the Vatican ratified in 2002, has hauled the Holy See before its members.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's UN ambassador in Geneva, lost no time asserting that its responsibility for enforcing the UN treaty against torture only applies within the confines of the tiny Vatican City, which has fewer than 1 000 inhabitants in an area less than half a square-kilometre in size, making it the smallest country in the world.
“The Holy See intends to focus exclusively on Vatican City state,” he told the committee. “State authorities are obligated to protect and when necessary to prosecute persons under their jurisdiction.”
But a UN committee that monitors a key treaty on children's rights blasted the Holy See in January, accusing it of systematically placing its own interests over those of victims by enabling priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children through its own policies and code of silence. And that committee rejected a similar argument the Vatican made trying to limit its responsibility.
If a UN committee finds the abuse amounts to torture and inhuman treatment, that could open the floodgates to abuse lawsuits dating back decades because there are no statute of limitations on torture cases, said Katherine Gallagher, a human rights attorney for the Centre for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit legal group based in New York. The group submitted reports on behalf of victims to both committees urging closer UN scrutiny of the church record on child abuse.
Gallagher said that rape legally can constitute a form of torture because of the elements of intimidation, coercion, and exploitation of power, and that it is a “disingenuous argument” for the Vatican to assert its only responsibility for the anti-torture treaty lies within Vatican City.
When they signed the treaty, Vatican officials said they were only doing so on behalf of Vatican City not the Holy See, which is the governing structure of the universal church. The Vatican's spokesman, Reverend Federico Lombardi, told Vatican Radio on Friday the church hopes the UN committee reviewing the anti-torture treaty will avoid being “reduced to tools of ideological pressure rather than a necessary stimulus towards the desired progress in promoting respect for human rights”.
But the stakes couldn't be higher, said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. She said hundreds of children are still being abused today despite the Vatican's recent “lofty words” that don't amount to preventive action.
SNAP last year separately asked the International Criminal Court to investigate former pope Benedict XVI and Vatican cardinals for possible crimes against humanity over clergy abuse. The court, based in The Hague, rejected the request.
“So much is at stake -the safety of children all across the globe,” she told reporters Friday at the UN in Geneva. “We don't know what will stop the Vatican officials. All we can do is to keep speaking out.”
Pope Francis has said he takes personal responsibility for the “evil” of clergy sex abuse, and he has sought forgiveness from victims and said the church must be even bolder in efforts to protect children. On Saturday, members of the Pope's sexual abuse advisory board said they will develop “clear and effective” protocols to hold bishops and other church authorities accountable if they fail to report suspected abuse or protect children from paedophile priests.
Francis announced the creation of the commission last December and named its members in March after coming under initial criticism for having ignored the sex abuse issue.
The UN committee, which is composed of independent experts, not other UN member states, will issue its final observations and recommendations May 23. - Sapa-AP