The Vatican came under fire yesterday during questioning by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which demanded answers from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi – the Vatican’s representative in Geneva – on the Holy See’s response to widespread sexual violence and abuse by priests.

The Committee called on the Archbishop to demonstrate the systems the Holy See has in place to prevent torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment, including rape and sexual abuse. The vice-chair of the UN Committee, American expert Felice Gaer, also demanded a response to allegations that Italian bishops had issued guidelines this year, approved by the Vatican, explicitly stating that they are not required to report suspected child sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities. The Committee also pressed the Archbishop on the denial of abortion care to and stigmatization of rape victims.

“Not only is the  UN calling the Vatican to account, they are acknowledging the gravity of the harms at stake – which amount to torture of the most vulnerable individuals and cause deep, long-lasting harm,” said Barbara Blaine, President of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which has filed a lawsuit against Vatican officials at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity as a result of rampant sexual abuse. “Pope Francis must humbly acknowledge the breadth of the problem in the church and take concrete steps to end the sexual violence and finally hold accountable not only perpetrators but those who cover up the violence, knowingly shift priests, and endanger more children.” Blaine was honored at the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Global Women’s Rights Awards last night for her work with SNAP.

Pope Francis announced in December a commission to advise on sexual abuse. The commission is charged with creating “best practices” and “clear and effective protocols” to prevent child sexual abuse. The commission, however, has only met once – last week – and there is no timeline for the commission to make proposals to the Pope. “Pope Francis and the bishops are not taking action that would protect children,” Blaine told reporters on Friday. SNAP has called for, at a minimum, removal of priests involved in sexual abuse.

This is the first time that the UN Committee Against Torture has reviewed the Holy See’s implementation of the international Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic Church, ratified the treaty in June 2002. Archbishop Tomasi reiterated to the Committee the Holy See’s position that it is only required to implement the treaty in Vatican City – and cannot be held accountable for the failure of its agents and institutions to fulfill the treaty obligations. The Holy See’s position, however, appeared untenable to the Committee. According to Felice Gaer, the Holy See’s position is the first time a party to the treaty has attempted to limit its obligations to “a subdivision” of itself. Although the Holy See governs Vatican City, the Holy See is a “non-territorial” entity and its exerts control beyond the territorial limits of Vatican City.

This is the second time that the Holy See has been called before a UN Committee to answer questions concerning its handling of sexual abuse. In February, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child blasted the Holy See, noting that “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.”

The hearing in front of the Committee Against Torture continues today.

Media Resources: Center for Constitutional Rights/SNAP Press Release 5/5/14; The Guardian 5/5/14; New York Times 5/5/14, 5/3/14; UN Treaty Body Webcast; Feminist Newswire 2/5/14

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