The UN criticizes the Vatican over its handling of child abuse cases

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World", a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Pope Francis may be the kinder, gentler face of the Catholic Church, but the Church is still dealing with a pre-Francis list of dirty laundry. Today, more scathing criticism of the Vatican from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. It published a report blasting the Catholic Church's handling of countless child sex abuse cases involving priests. Here's the committee's chair, Kirsten Sandberg.

Kirsten Sandberg: The Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children's best interests.

Werman: The UN report comes after hearings last month in Geneva at which top Vatican officials testified. Jane Little has been following the story. She's the BBC's former religion correspondent.

Jane Little: It's a fairly damning report, very, very strong language. The UN has accused the Vatican of systematically adopting policies allowing priests to sexually abuse thousands of children, has said that it adopted a practice of offenders mobility which referred to the transfer of child abuses from parish to parish, sometimes within countries, sometimes sending priests abroad where they could offend again, and this really strong language we heard there from Kirsten Sandberg. But it's worth stating this whole quote, "The Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases in 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."

Werman: So according to the UN, the Catholic Church has a long way to go. What are some of the recommendations the UN panel is giving?

Little: Well, it's saying that it should open its archives, that it needs to know who these abusers are, keep them out of contact with children, report all cases to the police and not just occasionally when it want to. I think in defense, the Vatican basically when this scandal, these series of scandals that rocked the Church to its foundations, first emerged in the US and then transferred overseas to many countries, the Vatican basically told the Church leadership in each country to report all cases to Rome. But that in itself has caused problems because people have quite rightly said, "Well, yes, but it should be the police who are involved in these cases and not just Rome." And we have had incidents, particularly at high levels in Ireland where we have documented evidence where Rome basically told the local Church hierarchy not to enforce such procedures and not to report to the police, but to report to Rome. So I think it has been roundly criticized and rightly for a culture of cover-up, but it has taken many, many steps to try to improve things.

Werman: Is there a concern that the scandals may just get eclipsed by Pope Francis's kinda giving the Church this different face, this different reputation?

Little: Well, I think certainly there's been a concern among survivors groups that Pope Francis came in giving an entirely new face to the Church and a much more positive one for many people, has seen to be reaching out in all sorts of directions, but some were concerned at first he wasn't reaching out enough, certainly wasn't doing enough on child abuse. Now, he did set up a commission in December to investigate cases of abuse and actually the Vatican panel has said what this commission should do is independently investigate both the abuse and the Church hierarchy's response to them. We'll see whether that actually happens.

Werman: And for survivors who have also been following this very closely, what have they been saying? Have they reacted to the UN report at all?

Little: We've heard from one leading group, from Barbara Blaine who is president of a group representing US victims of abuse by priests, and she told the BBC that the UN report "reaffirms everything we've been saying". She said it shows the Vatican has put the reputation of Church officials above protection of children. She says nothing has changed.

Werman: I'm also curious, Jane. I mean these are non-binding recommendations from the UN, but have you ever seen the UN get involved on religious matters at this level? I mean how rare is this?

Little: It is very rare. I mean the Vatican signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and that's why it agreed to appear before this panel. It hadn't actually been revealing any reports in a consistent manner to the panel, so it was a bit of too little too late for many people. But the fact that it did turn up, the fact that it is putting bishops there in public to defend the Church's very spotty record on this says something, that it is trying to clean up it's act.

Werman: Former BBC religion reporter Jane Little. Thanks for speaking with us.

Little: Thank you, Marco.

Do you enjoy our audio? Please help support it with a donation.