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Text by Karen KISSANE

Latest update : 2014-05-05

Leaders of the Catholic Church face another public grilling over the global scandal of child sex abuse by priests, with a UN panel meeting in Geneva on Monday and Tuesday expected to examine the church’s record on preventing torture.

This comes three months after another UN human rights panel, the Committee for the Rights of the Child, savaged the church for having put its own interests ahead of victims by shielding priests involved in the rape and abuse of tens of thousands children around the world.

The Vatican ratified the UN Convention against Torture in 2012 but argues it is responsible for enforcing it only within the boundaries of its geographic state, the tiny Vatican City in Rome, and that it does not apply to the actions of priests around the world.

But the children's rights panel rejected this legal argument in February and criticised the church for secretiveness, its unresponsiveness to victims and its protection of offenders.

It recommended the Vatican immediately remove any priest who was guilty of or suspected of child abuse, turn cases over to the police and open its files on offenders and the bishops who covered up for them.

Heartened by these recommendations, human rights groups have strongly pressed for the torture review to address the issue, too. The World Organisation Against Torture argued in a statement released in the leadup to the torture review that, by allowing rape, "The Holy See has failed its duties to prevent torture and other acts of ill-treatment within its jurisdiction, thereby violating (the convention).

"Although the Holy See has started to recognise the seriousness and scale of the abuse, this has not resulted in clear action to ensure the allegations of child sexual abuse are reported publicly and investigated and prosecuted."

Both the torture treaty and the children's rights convention require signatories to submit progress reports.

A legal group acting for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests criticised the Vatican’s report to the torture panel as inadequate for not mentioning sexual violence in its ranks. Lawyer Pam Spees said in a statement, "The CAT and international human rights law are clear: rape and other forms of sexual violence are recognised as torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and the Vatican has fallen woefully short of its obligation to prevent and protect against these crimes."

Lawyers have warned that if the committee does find that the abuse amounted to torture and inhuman treatmeant, and that the church bore institutional responsibility for it, it could trigger a flood of new lawsuits.

The earlier findings of the Committee for the Rights of the Child enraged church leaders because the committee also told Catholics to change their teachings on homosexuality, abortion, contraception and premarital sex. The group Catholic Voices said the church had been "ambushed by a UN kangaroo court" and Catholic groups labelled it "the new intolerance".

A Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, has warned the UN panel on torture not to give in to pressure from "strongly ideological" lobby groups. Another Catholic body, the Solidarity Centre for Law and Justice, warned in a submission that if the torture panel followed in the steps of the children's rights hearing, it risked setting up its own views on moral issues as if it were an official religion in opposition to the Catholic faith. It should protect religious freedom by steering clear of doctrinal debate, the submission said.

The torture hearing comes as members of Pope Francis’ new sexual abuse advisory board promised on Saturday to develop "clear and effective" ways to make bishops accountable if they fail to report suspected abuse or protect children from predatory clergy.

The board is made up of four men and four women, including an Irish survivor of clerical sexual abuse, Marie Collins, and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston (pictured together above). O’Malley said church rules had obviously "not been sufficient" and admitted that some senior church members remain "in denial" about abuse and coverups. He said there must be zero tolerance for perpetrators and those who protect  them.

Asked about the policy of Italian bishops, who have asserted they have no duty to report suspected abuse to police, O’Malley said, "These are the kinds of issues we will assess. Obviously, accountability should not be dependent upon legal obligations when there is a moral obligation."

Pope Francis has apologised to survivors and called the abuse evil.



Date created : 2014-05-05


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