United Nations Recommendations for Vatican Accountability for Sexual Violence in the Church

The Holy See claims that it is a sovereign state. It is governed as a monarchy with the Pope having "supreme, immediate and universal ordinary power." Given its tiny territorial state, its global presence, and the fact that it enjoys protections afforded to both governments and religious entities, the Vatican inhabits a unique and hybrid space in the world unlike any other country or entity. This hybrid status has long enabled it to avoid accountability: church authorities have asserted that any inquiry by national courts into the church's handling of sexual violence cases constitutes interference with religion, and the Vatican uses its statehood to invoke immunities granted to state officials.

However, in 2014, the United Nations asserted in no uncertain terms that the Vatican can and must be held accountable and compelled to make the concrete changes to its policies and practices that will protect children and vulnerable adults in the future.

Convention on the Rights of the Child

In January 2014, for the first time before an international body, the Vatican was called to respond to questions about its record in protecting children from sexual violence. The Vatican ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and is therefore legally obligated to comply with it. In 2013, in advance of the reporting, CCR and SNAP submitted reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which detailed how the Vatican has violated the core principles in the Convention that require States to ensure that the best interests of the child be the primary consideration in all actions concerning children and to protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence, including sexual violence.

In February 2014, the CRC issued a sharply critical report on the Vatican's failure to protect children, and recommendations on steps it must take in order to comply with its human rights obligations.

Key CRC findings:

  • The Church has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of perpetrators above the best interest of children;
  • The Church has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of abuses and impunity of perpetrators;
  • Well-known offenders have been transferred between parishes or countries in an attempt to cover-up crimes, which has allowed many priests to remain in contact with children and continue to abuse them;
  • A “code of silence” has prevented cases from being reporting to law enforcement; those who have reported abuse have been ostracized, demoted or fired, while priests who have refused to denounce child abusers have been congratulated;
  • Church authorities, including at the highest level of the Holy See, have either been reluctant or refused to cooperate with judicial authorities and national commissions of inquiry

Key CRC recommendations regarding clergy sexual abuse of children:

  • Ensure that the Commission created in December 2013 will investigate independently all cases of child sexual abuse as well as the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them; consider inviting civil society and victims organizations to join this Commission and international human rights mechanisms to support its work. The outcome of this investigation should be made public and serve to prevent the recurrence of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church;
  • 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;
  • Ensure a transparent sharing of all archives which can be used to hold the abusers accountable as well as all those who concealed their crimes and knowingly placed offenders in contact with children;
  • Amend Canon Law in order for child sexual abuse to be considered as crimes. . .and repeal all provisions which may impose an obligation of silence on the victims and on all those that become aware of such crimes;
  • Establish clear rules, mechanisms and procedures for the mandatory reporting of all suspected cases of child sexual abuse and exploitation to law enforcement authorities;
  • Ensure that all priests, religious personnel and individuals working under the authority of the Holy See are made aware of their reporting obligations and of the fact that in case of conflict, these obligations prevail over Canon law provisions

Convention against Torture (CAT)

International law recognizes that rape and sexual violence can constitute a form of torture. The Vatican ratified the Convention against Torture, which requires it to take all necessary actions to ensure the right to be free from torture and punish acts of torture. In May 2015, the Vatican was reviewed for the first time by the Committee Against Torture (CAT).

Following the review, the Committee issued a condemning report finding that the widespread sexual violence within the Catholic Church amounts to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment prohibited by CAT, and outlined a series of recommendations.

Key CAT recommendations:

  • Ensure that individuals that are subject to an allegation of abuse brought to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or other officials of the State party are immediately suspended from their duties pending the investigation of the complaint, to guard against the possibility of subsequent abuse or intimidation of victims;
  • Ensure effective monitoring of the placements of all clergy that are under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and prevent the transfer of clergy who have been credibly accused of abuse for the purposes of avoiding proper investigation and punishment of their crimes. For those found responsible, apply sanctions, including dismissal from clerical service;
  • Ensure that all State party officials exercise due diligence and react properly to credible allegations of abuse, subjecting any official that fails to do so to meaningful sanctions;
  • Take effective measures to ensure that allegations received by its officials concerning violations of the Convention are communicated to the proper civil authorities to facilitate their investigation and prosecution of alleged perpetrators. The State party should provide data to the Committee in its next periodic report on the number of cases in which it provided information to civil authorities both in the places where cases arose and in the places where the persons concerned are currently located.  
  • Establish an independent complaints mechanisms to which victims of alleged violations of the Convention can confidentially report allegations of abuse and which has the power to cooperate with the State party’s authorities as well as civil authorities in the location where the alleged abuse occurred;
  • Ensure that organs charged with carrying out investigations into allegations of violations of the Convention by public officials of the Holy See, including the Office of the Promoter of Justice, are independent with no hierarchical connection between the investigators and the alleged perpetrators. Ensure that such bodies carry out investigations promptly, thoroughly, and impartially;
  • Take steps to ensure that victims of sexual abuse committed by or with the acquiescence of the State party’s officials receive redress, including fair, adequate and enforceable right to compensation and as full rehabilitation as possible, regardless of whether perpetrators of such acts have been brought to justice. Appropriate measures should be taken to ensure the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of the victims of abuse;
  • Compile statistical data relevant to the monitoring of the implementation of the Convention, including data on complaints and investigations of cases amounting to violations of the Convention as well as on means of redress, including compensation and rehabilitation, provided to the victims

In its May 2015 "comments" to the Concluding Observations, the Vatican challenged the Committee for purportedly going beyond its mandate, arguing that the Committee did not having the authority to make many of its recommendations or requests, and therefore the Vatican has no obligation to respond with further information. The Vatican asserts that the Treaty only applies to the territory of Vatican City State—and not in jurisdictions throughout the world where Church officials operate in their official capacity—and it challenges the definition of torture. What the UN has repeatedly deemed widespread sexual violence within the Catholic Church, the Vatican considers "purely private acts."

 For information on how CCR and our partner, Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), have used international human rights mechanisms to call for accountability for sexual violence, visit our SNAP v. Pope case page.

Last modified 

September 22, 2015