News Violence

At UN, Vatican Continues to Claim Limited Jurisdiction on Sexual Abuse of Children by Priests

Erin Matson

Vatican officials appeared Monday before the United Nations Committee on Torture to discuss the sexual abuse of children by priests, claiming the Holy See lacks juridical power to combat the problem on an international basis.

Vatican officials appeared Monday before the United Nations Committee on Torture to discuss the sexual abuse of children by priests, claiming the Holy See lacks juridical power to combat the problem on an international basis.

“It should be stressed, particularly in light of much confusion, that the Holy See has no jurisdiction,” said Archbishop Silvano Tomasi. “The Holy See intends to focus exclusively on the Vatican City state. State authorities are obligated to protect and when necessary to prosecute persons under their jurisdiction.”

This marked the second time that Tomasi claimed in a UN hearing that the Vatican should be considered separately from the Catholic Church, a contention that if honored would dramatically limit the ability of sexual abuse victims to pursue accountability through international law. The argument was first made in January, and was subsequently rejected by a committee focused on children’s rights. It reached a skeptical audience again Monday, with the chief rapporteur of the committee calling the Vatican’s attempt to narrow the scope of inquiry troubling.

Much is at stake. Many countries have statutes of limitations on the prosecution of criminal sexual assault, but not torture. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which advocates on behalf of victims, claimed in a report submitted to the hearing that the Vatican had refused to cooperate with law enforcement and moved predatory priests from country to country to help them avoid prosecution.

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Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, urged the panel to not take the claims seriously. The group has more than 18,000 members in 79 countries and represents those who have had “almost identical experiences when we muster the courage to report our crimes to church officials,” she said in a statement. “By and large we are treated as enemies, discouraged from speaking up, accused of exaggerations, blamed for our own victimization, told we are the first victims to report, and promised that remedies will be taken. Based on decades of evidence, we firmly believe this is the direct result of Vatican practices that permit, excuse, and cover up sexual violence within the clergy.”

The Catholic Church in the United States has spent an estimate of at least $2.2 billion on litigation costs related to sexual abuse, with as many as 100,000 victims in this country alone, according to a presentation made to a Vatican summit in 2012 by Michael Bemi and Pat Neal.

Members of the committee on torture also raised concerns that the Vatican’s opposition to abortion harms women, including psychologically. In response, some advocates for the Vatican are striking back and attempting to shift the story. “They are almost blaming the Catholic Church for unsafe abortions,” Ashley E. McGuire of Catholic Voices USA told the Washington Examiner. The right-wing Media Research Center has released a story targeting John Heiliprin of the Associated Press for not mentioning abortion in his coverage of the Vatican sex abuse hearing.

The UN Committee on Torture will issue its report of findings and recommendations on May 23.

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