Friday, February 7, 2014

UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Criticizes Catholic Church

On February 5, 2014, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child ("Committee") released a highly publicized, scathing report to Vatican City regarding various aspects of allegations of child abuse within the Catholic Church.  The Committee expressed concern that the laws of the Church (Canon Law) do not conform with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, “in particular those relating to children‘s rights to be protected against discrimination, violence and all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.”  The Committee was “particularly concerned 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.”  While the Committee does acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of lower-level churches regarding allegations of child abuse, the Committee noted that high level, accused officials never faced any consequences regarding allegations of child abuse. 

Regarding investigations of child abuse within the Church, the Committee “expresse[d] 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. 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.”  Such cover-ups include “[w]ell-known child sexual abusers [being] transferred from parish to parish or to other countries in an attempt to cover-up such crimes.”  The Committee noted that the Holy See has failed to provide the Committee with its data and research regarding cases of sexual abuse. 

As a result of sexual scandals, many children were born of Catholic priests.  The Committee voiced its concern about the welfare of these children, noting, “The Committee is concerned about the situation of children born of Catholic priests, who, in many cases, are not aware of the identity of their fathers. The Committee is also concerned that the mothers may obtain a plan for regular payment from the Church until the child is financially independent only if they sign a confidentiality agreement not to disclose any information.”  In response to this information, the Committee recommended that the Holy See take all steps necessary to “ensure the rights of these children to know and to be cared for by their fathers.”  The Committee further recommended that the Holy See no longer impose confidentiality agreements for mothers seeking financial support.

This report also shed light on the disturbing behavior of the Magdalene laundries of Ireland, which was run by four congregations of Catholic Sisters until 1996.  These young girls were placed in these laundries, and many were subjected to slave-like conditions, including degrading treatment, physical abuse, and sexual abuse.  They were “deprived of their identity, of education and often of food and essential medicines and were imposed with an obligation of silence and prohibited from having any contact with the outside world.”  As of the writing of the report, the Catholic Church failed to ever investigate the conduct of the Sisters who operated these facilities.  The Committee urged the Committee Against Torture to the Republic of Ireland to prosecute any and all offenders and to ensure that the victims of these crimes receive justice. 

These laundries were also notorious for forcibly removing babies from their mothers in order to give the children to adoptive parents abroad.  Once again, the Committee scolded the Holy See for failing to conduct internal investigations regarding these atrocities, nor did the Holy See provide information on the measures taken to reunite these children with their biological mothers.  As such, the Committee urges the Holy See to open an investigation into cases of removal of children, and take all steps necessary to ensure such events never happen again. 

While the child abuse scandals were the main focus of the report, other areas of improvement were addressed.  Regarding corporal punishment of children in parochial schools, the Committee proposed that all such punishment be banned.  Violence against children is unacceptable, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child leaves no exceptions.  As a member of the Convention, the Holy See must take appropriate measures to ban corporal punishment, including mental violence.  The Committee demanded that both Canon Law and Vatican City State laws be amended to prohibit all corporal punishment of children, including within the family. 

Additionally, the Committee recommended that the Holy See replace offensive language with nondiscriminatory language in Canon Law.  In particular, the Committee notes that Canon Law frequently refers to “illegitimate children.”  The Committee recommended that such discriminatory classification of children born out of wedlock be removed from Canon Law. 

Homosexuality was also a topic of concern.  The committee encouraged positive statements made by Pope Francis regarding homosexuality, but expressed concern regarding the Catholic “social stigmatization of and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [LGBT] adolescents and children raised by same sex couples.”  The Committee urged the Holy See to use his “moral authority to condemn all forms of harassment, discrimination, and violence” against LGBTs.

Much criticism was placed on the Holy See’s views regarding abortion.  The Committee urged the Holy See to change its views regarding abortion.  While the Church need not approve of abortion, the Committee urged that in instances of risk to the life and health of pregnant girls, access to abortion procedures be permitted.  Along with its concerns regarding abortion policy, the Committee urged the Holy See to review its position regarding access to contraception, ensuring the health and safety of adolescents from sexually transmitted diseases and prevention of early pregnancy.  As noted by the Committee, information about sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy should be a part of mandatory curriculum in Catholic schools. 

This report has received significant media attention since its release.  In a statement released by the Vatican in response to the report, a Vatican official stated “[The Holy See] regret[s] to see in some points of the concluding observations an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom.”  As a more progressive Pope Francis continues to reign the Catholic Church, we can only hope that the recommendations of the Committee will be taken into consideration. 

Guest blogger, Julia Kaye Wykoff, Student, Southern Illinois University School of Law

(cgb ed.)

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