The Vatican has an unprecedented appointment on Thursday in Geneva: The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child will study, among other matters, the response of the Catholic Church to the incidences of abuse carried out by its members worldwide over the course of decades. It will be an historic moment; no organization has yet dared to take on the Holy See.
Victims and associations in the USA, Mexico and Europe have taken the opportunity to submit to the committee in Geneva reports with their collated complaints and documented cases of pedophilia. Mexico, from where 169 individuals and organizations will present more than 200 separate cases, has asked that the scandal be treated as a crime of state and the Vatican tried by the United Nations. Such a move would have to be taken in a separate process as the committee has limited itself to making an evaluation.
“Father, good luck with the UN,” someone this Saturday said to former priest Alberto Athié in the Coyoacán neighborhood in the south of Mexico City. Athié arrived in Geneva on Monday to meet with some of the committee’s members. This priest hung up his robes when his reports of pedophilia against Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, fell on deaf ears in Mexico and Rome. He believes the UN now has “an historic opportunity” to see justice served. “The Church is responsible because there were indications that the highest authority sought to protect the abusers and cover up pedophilia, which led to more and prolonged cases,” says Athié.
The road to Geneva commenced in 1990, when the Holy See signed the Convention on the Rights of a Child in its capacity as a state. The treaty obliges signatories to provide a report every five years on the adherence to its articles in those countries. The Vatican has broadly failed to provide such reports: it first filed one in 1995 and did not do so again until 2011, when the abuse scandal had already been widely reported. “In the whole document there is not one mention of sexual abuse,” notes Athié.
The committee in July took the opportunity presented by the delayed report to question the Catholic Church for the first time in its history. Among other things, Geneva requested “detailed information of all cases of sexual abuse carried out by clerics, monks, nuns or in other posts known to the Holy See.” In its response, which was made public in December, the Vatican did not cite concrete cases and claimed the investigation corresponds to the countries where the abuses took place. “When the Holy See ratified the treaty it did not do so in the name of all the Catholics in the world. Every member of the Catholic Church is bound by the laws of the country in which they live,” the document stated.
The explanation failed to convince victims, many of whom have been fighting for years to prove that the Church actively sought to protect its members and failed to do anything to help those who suffered abuse. The current scandal broke early last decade after an investigative report in the US, but abuse has been mentioned for decades within the institution. A 1962 directive ordered all members of the Catholic Church to remain silent on abuse cases on pain of excommunication and although it has been revised several times, its essence remained the same in 2001: not a word on sexual abuse.
Mexican documents place special emphasis on the figure of the leader of the Legionaries of Christ: “In Maciel’s case the cover-up was more explicit because there was direct intervention by John Paul II,” says Athié, noting that historically priests committing abuse were merely “moved to another location to prevent a scandal.” The documentation submitted to Geneva also asks that the canonization process of the former pontiff be halted.
The current pope, Francis, has begun his papacy by tackling the problem of abuse head-on and created a special Vatican commission to fight pedophilia. The findings of the UN committee will be made public on January 31.