The UN torture committee has concluded that the Catholic Church is not guilty of torture or in violation of international law.
In a report issued today, the UN torture committee does criticize the Church for its handling of various abuse cases around the world and rejects the Vatican insistence that the Treaty on Torture only governs the Church within the 100 acres of the Vatican City State.
However, the report does not say anywhere that the Church is in violation of the UN Convention Against Torture. The report lauds the Church for the steps it has taken in the handling of abuse cases, specifically mentioning the case of an Indian priest who was returned to his home diocese after molesting a 14-year-old in Minnesota and an Archbishop charged with abuse who has not yet been extradited from the Vatican to the Dominican Republic to face charges.
The report does not go into the question of abortion, as expected, since some committee members grilled Vatican representatives two weeks ago about Church teaching on abortion and whether its restrictive teaching is a form of torture. Even so, the report is silent on abortion.
What’s more, the report does not go so far as the UN Committee on the rights of the Child issued earlier this year which told the Church to change its teachings on abortion, adolescent sexuality and much else.
The committee may have blinked given the strong pushback on the previous report and the aggressive stance taken by Papal Nuncio to the UN Silvano Tomasi before the committee two weeks ago. The committee has told other countries, including Ireland, that abortion must be legalized under the terms of the treaty, something experts say the committee cannot do since the treaty is silent on abortion.
The Vatican issued a statement this morning in Rome and showed the Holy See was largely pleased with the report. “The concluding observations [of the committee] include many positive outcomes that reflect the Committee’s acknowledgement of the good faith efforts of the Holy See to comply with [the treaty], to institute reforms to prevent sexual abuse and to compensate and facilitate the care and healing of victims of sexual abuse.”
However, the Holy See pushed back against the Committee’s expansion of the definition of torture: “…there appears to be an implicit fundamental assumption throughout the Observations that any sexual abuse is equivalent to, or a form of, torture as defined in the [the treaty]. Such an assumption is neither supported by the text of the [the treaty] nor has it been accepted to date by human rights authorities.”
Legal expert Stefano Gennarini, who has worked on UN treaty body reform for years, was not so sanguine as the Holy See. Writing at Turtle Bay and Beyond, Gennarini argues, “the committee’s observations on the the Holy See’s compliance with the convention against torture are disingenuous and even facetious. The committee did everything it could to put the Holy See in a negative light, short of saying that it had violated the convention against torture.”
Gennarini, legal director at C-Fam, a U.N.-accredited NGO, says, “Right from the start the observations reject the limited scope of the Pope’s jurisdiction, saying that the Pope is responsible for the actions of every priest under his ‘effective control.’ The committee is willfully overlooking the fact that once outside the walls of the Vatican City State the Pope has no compulsory jurisdiction over anyone.”
Gennarini concludes, “…the whole charade was a political attack and had nothing to do with human rights. U.N. committee experts [and] U.N. bureaucrats are actively working to undermine the moral position of the Holy See…”
In the end, the treaty monitoring body is not a judicial body, and its reports are not legal findings but merely suggestions that states party to the treaty are free to accept or reject. It is likely, however, the report will be used by advocates to further pressure the Church on sexual abuse issues.
(Austin Ruse is president of C-Fam, where Gennarini works.)