A few weeks ago, Pope Francis delivered his first ever Christmas Day speech to thousands of followers in St Peter’s Square.
He highlighted the lives ‘shattered’ in Syria, Iraq and the
Israel-Palestine conflict and called for an end to ‘further suffering’.
But simply wishing for ‘world peace’ is for Miss World contestants; the
leader of one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential bodies has
the power to make real change.
On January 16, a Vatican delegation is due to appear before the
United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child at a hearing in
Geneva as part of an investigation into allegations of child sexual
abuse by Catholic clergy around the world and an alleged system of
cover-ups by the Holy See.
Pope Francis and the Catholic Church have a
clear opportunity to help victims whose lives have been ‘shattered’ by
child abuse and help prevent ‘further suffering’, campaigners say.
‘This is the first time the Holy See’s been pressed on child sexual
abuse by the world’s children’s rights body and that’s of international
significance,’ said Veronica Yates, director of Child Rights International Network
‘We know child abuse happens in other closed institutions, but
what’s unique about the Catholic Church is the Holy See is a UN State
that’s voluntarily signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the
Child, a legally binding document that includes, among others, a child’s
right to protection from violence and sexual abuse.’
She added: ‘Child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is a global
problem affecting thousands of children. Some of the “techniques”
employed by the church indicate its disregard for children’s rights and
An example is the “geographical cure”, designed to relocate,
forget and sweep under the rug cases of child abuse to protect the
institution. There are numerous examples of priests accused of abuse
being transferred, usually from Europe or North America to Africa or
Latin America. The Holy See’s given no indication these practices have
But does she think anything can be achieved by the UN investigation?
‘We believe the UN Committee will give strong recommendations to the
Holy See to change its laws and policies, so child abusers can be
punished and can no longer hide behind a cloak of secrecy,’ said Yates.
‘We hope the review will also give victims the courage and opportunities
to come forward and seek justice for the crimes they’ve suffered.’
The Catholic Church has been too slow to tackle the problem, admitted Danny Sullivan, chairman of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission.
‘The Catholic Church acknowledges it took some time to recognise the
extent of child abuse within the church and successive popes have
regretted this and apologised and met with victims and survivors.
‘It’s not the reputation of the church which matters most – it’s the
damage done to victims and survivors which is the church’s principal
concern. It’s significant that the group of eight cardinals commissioned
by Pope Francis to help with reforms in the church have made their
first proposal the setting up of a safeguarding commission in the
Vatican, which reflects how seriously Pope Francis takes the issue of
child abuse. It will be important that the commission is open,
transparent and robust.’
But are these just words?
The Holy See’s already refused to provide
requested details to the UN Committee on its internal investigations
into child abuse by priests, widely seen as another example of the
Catholic Church putting its reputation above the rights of victims and
potential future victims. They were accused of hiding behind legal
The UN asked, among other things, for details of how the
Vatican was making sure known abusive priests had no contact with
children and what guidelines were given to ensure the church reported
known cases to the police. The Holy See suggested that, if pushed too
hard on these issues, they could terminate or withdraw from the UN
Criticism from the UN would be damaging, at a time when the Catholic
Church is trying to present a new image. But the UN Committee has no
legal powers to punish guilty parties or impose reform.
‘The Committee can’t find powerful members of the Vatican guilty for
covering up child sexual abuse,’ said Yates. ‘But it can challenge the
Holy See on its persistent side-stepping of one of the worst crimes
If the Catholic Church refuses to be open and co-operative, has
anything changed in the past few years or is it still trying to protect
its own image at the expense of victims?
‘The Roman Catholic Church has an appalling history of cover-ups,
denials and moving perpetrators from one place to another,’ said Peter
Saunders, chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood
‘Most victims of abuse will take some convincing that the
church is serious about this issue and will need to see mighty things
happen to consider they’ve received any form of “justice”.
Catholic Church agreeing to hand over their information about abusing
clergy, the whole thing would be pointless and I believe the Vatican’s
already refused to do this.’
Although the Catholic Church is being singled out, abuse happens in many other organisations.
‘At NAPAC, we hear from people abused by Jews, Muslims, Buddhists,
Quakers…’ said Saunders. ‘Abuse knows no boundaries. All religious
organisations should be investigated, as this is a global epidemic. And
we shouldn’t forget secular organisations have a great deal to answer
to: the BBC, the NHS…’
Saunders has first-hand experience on this issue – he was abused at a
Catholic boys’ school in south-west London. His older brother, Mike,
was abused by the same priest, which, Saunders says, led to heroin and
alcohol addiction. He hopes that victims are remembered in the UN
‘I survived, but Mike died from the addictions that set in from the
abuse he suffered for years,’ he said. ‘This is the real cost of abuse.’