Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The UN and the Catholic Church

The United Nations's Committee on the Rights of the Child has released a report responding to the Vatican's own report of its compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child; noting that the Holy See took six years to respond, it made some pertinent recommendations, as summarized and excerpted by the Washington Post:
AMEND CHURCH LAW

The Vatican should bring its Canon Law in line with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Holy See ratified in 1990, “in particular those (laws) relating to children’s rights to be protected against discrimination, violence and all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.” This includes any obligation for victims of crimes or those aware of them to remain silent.

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PUT CHILDREN BEFORE THE CHURCH

The panel said that “in dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse, the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests.” It said church officials had in many cases blamed the victims or their families, sought to discredit and in some cases humiliated them.

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END IMPUNITY

Despite the Vatican’s commitment to “hold inviolable the dignity and entire person of every child,” the panel expressed its “deepest concern about child sexual abuse committed by members of the Catholic churches who operate under the authority of the Holy See, with clerics having been involved in the sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children worldwide.” It added: “The Committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.”

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STOP IMPEDING INVESTIGATIONS

The panel urged the Vatican to stop the transfer of abusers and suspected abusers, a practice it said had been documented on numerous occasions and which amounted to covering up the crimes. A Vatican commission created last year should investigate “all cases of child sexual abuse as well as the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them.” In doing so, it should consider bringing in independent human rights groups, publish the outcome of the investigations and allow its archives to be accessed by law enforcement authorities investigating alleged perpetrators and those who may have covered for them.

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REMOVE PERPETRATORS

It called on the Vatican to “immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment and refer the matter to the relevant law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution purposes.”
On behalf of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh has responded:
Sexual abuse of a minor is a sin and a crime and no organization can become complacent about addressing it. The Catholic Church has certainly done more than any other international organization to face the problem and it will continue to lead in doing so.

In the United States, the number of cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy has plummeted. This is in no small part due to the fact that millions of Catholic children have been instructed on safe environments and tens of thousands of adults who work with them in the church have gone through background checks and safe environment education. In 2012, for example, dioceses and religious institutes conducted background checks on 99 percent of clerics, 97 percent of educators, 95 percent of employees, and 96 percent of volunteers. Every diocese has a victim assistance coordinator who assists those who have been abused and a safe environment coordinator who works to prevent abuse from occurring again.

The Vatican also has shown resolve in addressing the issue. Pope John Paul II changed the age of maturity in church law so more abuse cases could be prosecuted. Pope Benedict called on every bishops’conference in the world to develop policies. Pope Francis recently announced a commission to strengthen the church’s handling of sexual abuse.
Sr. Walsh makes some fair points about improvements in background checks and training--as detailed in Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012 (Plante & McChesney, eds.) at 195-244, serious and commendable work has been done in these areas.

But where Sister Walsh seems to me to be in error is claiming that the Church's efforts at incident reduction entitle it describe itself as "continu[ing] to lead in" facing the problem. Because she does not at all engage with the fact that the Church has, as the UN Report correctly describes, systematically impeded investigations by secular law enforcement in multiple nations, over at least a generation.

In my 2012 article Command and Coercion (the link goes to the 2011 working paper; the published article is more polished, and more up to date, as well as less polemical in tone), I detailed the extensive history of the Church thwarting law enforcements, building on investigative reports throughout the United States, as well as in other nations, such as Ireland, as detailed in the Murphy and Cloyne Reports. Many of these reports were quite recent, and a wavelet of stories demonstrating members of the hierarchy disparaging news accounts of previously unreported instances as "petty gossip" or media bias against the Church took place in 2010.

Since the publication of "Command and Coercion," in fact, in 2013, the Archdiocese of Newark was confronted with revelations that a priest who had been convicted go abusive behavior had obtained a reversal due to trial court error, and had avoided re-trial by a plea agreement designed to prevent further offenses to which the Archdiocese was a a signatory, had violated that plea agreement. (The Archdiocese's canonical court had previously ignored the confession and the guilty plea, and cleared the offending priest). The Archdiocese's response to the story about the plea violations was to falsely characterize the terms of the agreement, and deny any infraction had taken place; the Catholic League, backing this story up, claimed a nefarious plot to "sunder" the Archbishop. Less then a week later, the Archdiocese acknowledged the plea agreement had been violated, and disclaimed knowledge of the acts it had defended scant days before. Later, when accepting the resignation of his Vicar-General, Archbishop Myers, like Sister Walsh, approvingly cited the Dallas Charter and compliance with it, and ignored his own office's efforts to defend Fugee and misrepresent the legal and factual history.

Archbishop Myers remains in office, as of this writing; in October 2013, he addressed the Canon Law Society of America, stating:
Clearly our Church and many other groups and individuals in our Society must be appalled at the sexual abuse crisis which has come to light in recent decades. The members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have admitted mistakes and apologized sincerely for the suffering of far too many victims, as have individual bishops in specific cases. Our best apology is effective action to care for victims and to work to ensure that such evil actions never again occur. This calls for widespread and regular education and screening, but also proper penalties for perpetrators.
Archbishop Myers spoke as if the Fugee matter had never taken place, and did not address the need to cooperate with secular law enforcement.

Perhaps the Archbishop means it this time, and has learned from the Fugee affair. But his address reads as the words of one who believes that the matter lies within, as before, the special jurisdiction of canon law, first and foremost--the very belief the origins of which I traced in "Command and Coercion."

Sister Walsh's defense of the USCCB's record is somewhat less than reassuring in view of her failure to address this continuing culture of clerical immunity, the lack of consequences for those in the hierarchy who perpetuate it, and, especially, in her reliance upon internal canon and procedures and not secular law.

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