Weeks ago, the United Nations released one of the greatest international indictments of the Vatican in years. Among the report’s concerns: “ritual beatings of children,” “torture and other cruel or degrading treatment” and sexual abuse and exploitation.
Worse, the report said, the Catholic Church hadn’t just ignored pleas for reform. It had protected pedophile priests. “Well-known child sexual abusers have been transferred from parish to parish or to other countries in an attempt by the church to cover-up such crimes,” the United Nations alleged.
On Tuesday, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United Nations sat at a desk before a U.N. committee in Geneva to address some of those concerns. Over three hours, the gray-haired archbishop unveiled for the first time the punishment the church has meted out to thousands of priests guilty of committing sexual abuse.
In the past decade, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said the Vatican defrocked 848 priests. It also sanctioned an additional 2,572 clergymen with lesser penalties, including “a life of prayer and penitence.” In all, he reported, the Vatican handled more than 3,400 cases of sexual abuse since 2004. “There is no climate of impunity, but there is a total commitment to clean the house,” he said, adding that many of the cases of sexual abuse were from decades ago.
He said the church had changed: “I think we have crossed a threshold … in our evolution of the approach to these problems. It’s clear that the issue of sexual abuse of children, which is a worldwide plague and scourge, has been addressed in the last 10 years by the church in a systematic, comprehensive, constructive way.”
Critics immediately questioned that assessment. The main issue, they say, is the fact that the church gave numbers — but no names. “Every step towards more transparency about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups is good,” said David Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “But this one — the number of priests defrocked — is largely meaningless. Parents can’t protect their kids from a number. What parents need are the names and whereabouts of child-molesting clerics.”
On Tuesday, that disclosure didn’t appear any closer, but some expressed satisfaction at the Vatican’s growing transparency. “Given where the church came from — with the pendulum swung squarely to the side of the accused priest whose explanations were almost always believed — this is a move … toward giving credibility to victims, which is progress,” Nick Cafardi, an authority on church law and a former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ lay review board that monitored clerical abuse, told the Associated Press. “Maybe not perfect progress, but progress.”
Tomasi’s U.N. appearance follows more than decade of coverage of sex abuse and pedophilia inside the Catholic Church highlighted by a 2002 Boston Globe investigation that showed many church leaders hid wrongdoing. Since then, many have condemned the church for what they say are feckless attempts to cleanse itself. According to 2010 Pew Research report, 71 percent of Americans said Pope Benedict XVI had done a poor or only fair job of handling the crisis.
Since last year’s selection of Pope Francis, the Vatican has done everything it can to rebrand itself, from allowing a singing nun to appear on an Italian reality TV show to cracking down on church profligacy. On Tuesday, Francis castigated those who entered the church’s ranks for money.
“There are climbers in the church,” he said during a morning mass at his Vatican residence. “There are a lot of them! … We have known a lot of good Catholics . … And then we discover that they have been carrying out somewhat shady dealings. They were real profiteers and they made a lot of money. They presented themselves as benefactors, but they took a lot of money — and not always clean money.”
Such rhetoric has been wildly popular. More than 85 percent of Catholics view Pope Francis favorably, polls show. But Tuesday’s hearing illustrates how, despite Francis’s charisma, the church’s sex abuse scandal is far from over.
If anything, following Tuesday’s panel, the scandal may heat up. According to the AP, Tomasi didn’t dispute the United Nations’ argument that raping children could be considered torture — even though the Vatican’s chief spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said last week that linking the child abuse scandal with torture would be “deceptive and forced.”
“I’m not a lawyer,” Tomasi parried. He said an act can be considered torture if it is “consistent with the definitions of the [U.N.] convention,” which defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.”
The distinction between sex crimes and torture, though semantic, is crucial. Cases involving torture don’t carry a statute of limitations in many countries.
Advocates for victims of sex abuse said Tomasi’s response was an admission that sex abuse can be considered torture. “The Vatican has long minimized these offenses,” one attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights said. “But the committee’s recognition … could help open additional channels for victims to seek justice.”