Pope Francis is visiting the U.S. this week, including a stop at the United Nations in New York on Friday. He has been roundly praised for his pronouncements on climate change, economic inequality, and other social justice issues.
Obscured by all the praise, however, are issues on which Pope Francis is hardly better than his predecessor, including widespread sexual violence by Catholic priests and clergy. By some estimates, the number of victims over the past three decades is in the hundreds of thousands and on the rise, as more survivors come forward and civil authorities begin investigations in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The Vatican’s own experts have said there are 100,000 cases in the U.S. alone.
Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Committee Against Torture reviewed the Vatican’s compliance with its treaty obligations last year and issued a series of recommendations on what Pope Francis can and must do to end this epidemic of sexual violence, including:
(1) Immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment and refer the matter to relevant law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution;
(2) Hand over files containing details of cases of sexual violence to civil authorities for investigation and prosecution of abusers as well as whose who concealed their crimes and knowingly placed offenders in contact with children;
(3) Make reporting to civil authorities mandatory everywhere the Catholic Church operates;
(4) Develop comprehensive procedures for the early identification of child victims of sexual and other forms of abuse;
(5) Ensure accessible, confidential, child-friendly and effective reporting channels for children who are victims or witnesses of sexual abuse, and that child victims and witnesses of crimes are provided with unconditional psycho-social support for their rehabilitation and reintegration.
(6) Fully cooperate with the UN Committees and provide all data requested.
Pope Francis has condemned sexual violence as a “grave sin” and spoken about the need for accountability by bishops. So far, however, his public statements have not been matched by action. Instead, in response to the common-sense recommendations by the UN, Vatican representatives claimed that the Holy See is responsible only for what happens inside the .17 square miles of Vatican City and nothing else. They also asserted that sexual violence doesn’t rise to the level of torture, continuing the Church’s history of belittling the physical and mental harm suffered by the victims.
As Pope Francis addresses the General Assembly at the UN this week, he might consider not only the church’s moral obligations regarding “sin,” but also the Vatican’s responsibility as a signatory to human rights conventions to prevent and provide accountability for these crimes.