The United Nations on Monday linked the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests to torture, stepping up its criticism of the Holy See and, according to one activist group, potentially opening the way to a new wave of lawsuits.
Members of a U.N. committee on torture questioned Vatican officials for two hours about the church's handling of abuse cases, with one member claiming a “climate of impunity” existed within the Vatican.
The hearing marked the Vatican’s first appearance before the committee after it signed in 2002 an international convention banning torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.
One legal expert said the hearing might spark further prosecutions of priests.
“The committee has stated that rape is torture, based on the physical and mental harm it can do, and that may push courts to consider abuse by priests as torture,” said Pam Spees, a lawyer with the U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights.
“Torture comes with universal jurisdiction," she said. "States which have signed up to the U.N. convention are obliged to follow up, and there is no statute of limitations and acquiescence in torture is very serious.”
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative in Geneva, said in his opening remarks that when the Vatican signed up to the torture treaty it did so with the “very clear and direct intention” that it applied only to the territory of the tiny Vatican state and not to its priests and bishops around the world.
But the U.N.’s chief rapporteur, Felice Gaer of the United States, told the Vatican delegation that dealing with just the Vatican state would lead to a large number of cases of priestly abuse being “excluded from consideration by this committee, and this troubles us."
The hearing marks the second time this year the U.N. has challenged the Vatican on abuse. In January, Tomasi appeared in Geneva before a committee on children’s rights, which also opposed the Vatican’s territorial argument. The panel noted that priests are “bound by obedience to the pope” in canon law, making the Vatican accountable for their conduct.
The children’s rights committee criticized the Vatican for “systematically” protecting predator priests, allowing “tens of thousands” of children to be abused. It also questioned core Catholic teachings on homosexuality, contraception and abortion.
That prompted a Vatican spokesman on the eve of Monday’s hearing to argue that the U.N. risked “losing authority” as it succumbed to pressure exercised by nongovernmental bodies with a “strong ideological character.”
Pope Francis has fought back against criticism of the Vatican’s handling of the abuse crisis that has swept through dioceses from the U.S. to Europe to Australia, claiming in March that “the Catholic Church is possibly the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility” in response to abuse.
But he has set up a new commission on sexual abuse, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who said Saturday that senior church members were still “in denial” over the phenomenon.
Joining O’Malley on the commission is Marie Collins, an Irish woman who was abused by a priest when she was 13.
Collins has campaigned against abusive priests but said Saturday that since the U.N. committee dealt with state-sponsored torture she felt it was not the place to discuss the issue.
“I don’t believe it is connected in any way to the work we are doing,” she said.
The panel is due to deliver its report on May 23.