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All Things Catholic | John L. Allen Jr.

Facing fresh UN grilling, Vatican envoy pushes back

Also: An interview with Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, a Vatican envoy to the United Nations; exorcism and left v. right; and Pope Francis on ecology.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi (left) spoke with former Vatican Chief Prosecutor of Clerical Sexual Abuse Charles Scicluna at the start of questioning over clerical sexual abuse of children at the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in January.

AFP/Getty Images/file

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi (left) spoke with former Vatican Chief Prosecutor of Clerical Sexual Abuse Charles Scicluna at the start of questioning over clerical sexual abuse of children at the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in January.

Ahead of what’s likely to be another grilling tomorrow by United Nations officials over child sexual abuse, as well as matters such as abortion and homosexuality, the Vatican’s senior envoy in Geneva is projecting bravado.

“We can take a few knocks, especially for the sake of people’s welfare,” said Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, an Italian prelate.

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Tomasi spoke to the Globe ahead of an appearance in Geneva Monday before the UN’s Committee against Torture, part of a hearing to monitor implementation of a 1984 antitorture pact signed by 155 nations, among them the Holy See.

It comes on the heels of a similar date in January with the Committee for the Rights of the Child, which ended with a scathing report blasting the Vatican for fostering “impunity” for abusive clergy and pointedly urged that the church change its teachings on matters such as abortion, contraception, and gay marriage.

This time around, Tomasi seems determined to land a few punches, as well as taking them.

In his Globe interview, Tomasi vigorously defended the church’s efforts to turn a corner in the fight against child abuse and charged that some seem deliberately “deaf and blind” to the progress made. He also warned that if the UN committee’s conclusions appear skewed by ideological bias, such as styling opposition to gay marriage as “psychological torture,” it could damage the body’s credibility.

Tomasi said that while the Vatican welcomes constructive criticism on the abuse scandals, that’s different from “bureaucrats wedded to a particular ideological cause” taking potshots. He also said the Vatican remains committed to the United Nations as a forum for promoting peace and development, complaining that those aims are frustrated when components of the system seem determined to pick fights.

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Knowing what’s coming on Monday, the Vatican and its allies are pushing back.

Two Vatican-friendly NGOs will testify before the Committee against Torture, to defend the church’s recent record on abuse prevention and to insist that a UN body has no business poking its nose into a religious group’s teachings. The Vatican’s mission in Geneva has circulated a seven-page response to six frequent accusations leveled against the church vis-à-vis the abuse scandals.

In essence, they appear set to make three basic arguments:

Despite a checkered history on the abuse scandals, today the Vatican and the broader church are fully committed to the protection of children and vulnerable adults. Sexual abuse is hardly, they insist, a problem only in the Catholic Church, and “polemics” get in the way of a concerted effort to do something about it.

The experts on these panels are obligated to focus on matters spelled out in the treaties whose implementation they monitor, and stretching their mandate to attack a church for its teaching amounts to illegitimate “mission creep” as well as a violation of religious freedom.

These experts don’t represent anyone but themselves, and thus it’s not accurate to say that “the UN” is blasting the church. Moreover, they charge, members of these panels are often identified with cultural positions at odds with the Catholic Church, raising questions about their objectivity.

In addition, the Vatican and its friends undoubtedly will point to Pope Francis’s expressions of resolve in confronting the abuse scandals, especially his creation of a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

With Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clerical abuse, among the members, the commission wrapped up its first three-day meeting Saturday. In a Rome press conference afterward, O’Malley said the principle of “the best interests of a child or vulnerable adult” will drive its work and that one focus will be accountability in the church “regardless of status.”

That was probably a reference to a common complaint among critics of the church’s response to the crisis, which is that Catholicism now has “zero tolerance” for clergy who abuse but not equally stern accountability for bishops who cover it up.

“We won’t deal with individual cases of abuse,” O’Malley said, “but we can make recommendations on policies for ensuring accountability and best practices.”

Collins, the lone abuse survivor in the group, was asked about Monday’s UN hearing. She said that sexual abuse is “completely different” from state-sponsored torture and that she came away from the initial meeting of the papal commission with a “very positive feeling.”

Pope Francis said Mass for commission members Friday. Collins told reporters that the pope was right when he said recently that the Catholic Church has done more to fight abuse than other institutions, but said that’s not true everywhere and that a number of bishops still think clerical abuse “could not happen in their country.”

It remains to be seen if such efforts to project a commitment to reform and to hear the voice of victims will have any impact on the final conclusions of the UN’s Committee against Torture. In the meantime, Tomasi claimed that the last knock he took from a UN panel actually had some positive fallout.

“My service at the UN has become more visible,” he said. “It was kind of a backhanded compliment, though not one I’d want very often.”

Interview with Archbishop Silvano Tomasi

The Globe’s interview with Tomasi expanded on these topics.

Globe: You complained that the Committee on the Rights of the Child went beyond its mandate in February. Are you afraid the same thing will happen with the Committee against Torture?

Tomasi: The final report [of the Committee on the Rights of the Child] contained an element of ideology that went beyond the terms of the convention. I used an expression at the time that maybe was a little harsh, but I said it’s almost as if they wanted to teach theology to the Vatican.

In reports filed before this meeting, some experts indicated an interest in asking questions about forms of “psychological torture” which aren’t included in the text of the Convention against Torture. I have to believe the experts are acting in good faith, and that they’ll ask questions pertinent to application of the convention. If they introduce extraneous topics, we’ll respond in line with the objective of this exercise, which is to focus on the convention.

Globe: Some might wonder why you bother showing up if you think it’s going to be an attack.

Tomasi: The Holy See wants to be active in the international arena, in order to defend the common good of individual people and of the human family as a whole. It wants to remain engaged, even where there are some misunderstandings about its mission. We can take a few knocks, especially for the sake of people’s welfare.

Globe: If the Committee against Torture goes into areas you consider off-bounds, would you consider filing a protest with the General Assembly?

Tomasi: I don’t think we’re there yet. The normal procedure is for the member state to write its own reply to the final report of a treaty body, which goes to the General Assembly.

For years now there’s been a discussion at the UN about the role of treaty bodies. It’s part of a broader conversation about reform of the UN to make it more effective, including the relationship among experts, bureaucrats, and the member states. What we don’t want is for the democratic process to be twisted, with the agenda of the states being driven by bureaucrats or experts wedded to a particular ideological cause.

Globe: Do you think your experience may contribute to that discussion?

Tomasi: I would expect so. There’s also a danger that excessive zeal of some committees may affect public opinion about the UN and do damage to the institution, which would be a disservice. We need an international forum where people and states can talk, in order to promote peace and avoid catastrophes as well to work on shared objectives such as development and the fight against poverty.

Headlines usually say “UN blasts Vatican” when one of these reports appears, but do these experts represent the entire United Nations?

They speak only for themselves. That’s their role, to function as independent experts. They do not represent a member state. The media sometimes extends the ideas of these experts to the entire United Nations, which is not true.

Globe: What reform measures has the Catholic Church taken on child abuse that you feel have been overlooked?

Tomasi: The church, both in the sense of the Holy See and local churches around the world, has taken a whole series of measures. For instance, more than 700 priests have been directly laicized by the Holy See since 2004 related to charges of sexual abuse. Laws have been passed, and the church has invested massive resources in abuse prevention, detection, and response. church leaders have reached out to victims, and churches have also paid compensation.

All this has been communicated in many ways, but some people seem deaf and blind to the evidence. We need to arrive at a place where instead of polemics, there’s a common concern to improve the lot of children who are victimized by sexual abuse. For instance, UN statistics say there are tens of millions of cases of child abuse around the world, most in the family, and we don’t know a great deal about it. It also occurs in other professional categories, such as teachers in public schools. We need to work together to understand what’s happening and to confront it.

Globe: What sorts of questions on child abuse would you see as legitimate from a UN panel?

Tomasi: Of course there are legitimate questions they can ask. For instance, they could share good practices [in child protection] from other states and ask if local churches have considered implementing them. They can find out what the Holy See and the local churches have already done in trying to combat and prevent the abuse of children, and ask about the effectiveness of these measures and their results.

Globe: Part of your argument is that the Holy See signs these treaties only in terms of the Vatican City State, so it’s illegitimate to ask questions about the global Catholic Church. Can you see why that strikes some people as dodging the Vatican’s responsibility?

Tomasi: I understand it’s an easy confusion to see the pope as responsible for everything. After all, he’s as much the pope in Texas or Louisiana as he is in Rome. In reality, however, the Holy See exercises its responsibility in two different ways.

First, there’s its juridical competence for the Vatican City State, this small territory for which it has direct responsibility. Second, the Holy See has a unique spiritual responsibility for individuals who freely adhere to the Catholic faith. It has to exercise that spiritual authority in full respect for the sovereignty of other states, recognizing their jurisdiction over Catholics who are their citizens. If we tried to intervene, it would be a violation of international law.

We’re not splitting hairs or hiding behind our sovereignty. We’re trying to respect the law and the independence of other states so we can’t be accused of interfering in their political or criminal procedures.

Exorcism and left v. right

Last Sunday offered an eloquent demonstration of why the categories of left v. right often don’t work in thinking about the Catholic Church, in a sainthood ceremony that bestowed halos on Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, and in which both living popes, Francis and Benedict, participated.

Both sets of pontiffs are often styled as ideological contrasts, yet Sunday showed that the natural Catholic instinct is to see these apparent divergences in terms of “both/and” rather than “either/or.”

Another demonstration of the same point comes in a zone of Catholic life that’s as fascinating to the outside world as it is often misunderstood: exorcism.

Belief in a personal Devil, in demonic possession, and in spiritual combat is generally associated with a highly traditional cluster of religious beliefs, and hence typically is seen as “conservative.” Truth to be told, however, if you were to listen to many exorcists talk about what they do and simply substitute the word poverty for possession, often you’d think you’re listening to the ultimate in bleeding heart liberalism.

The same values are in play: compassion, outreach to a population victimized by prejudice, and a determination to do something in the here-and-now about misery and squalor.

The thought comes to mind in light of a new book by an Italian theologian and exorcist, the Rev. Sante Babolin, called “Exorcism: Ministry of Consolation,” published in Italy by Edizioni Messaggero Padova.

Babolin’s biography debunks the notion that belief in exorcism lingers only among the ignorant and in crude forms of popular religion. Babolin is an accomplished philosopher who taught at Rome’s prestigious, Jesuit-run Gregorian University for more than 30 years and is an expert on the French thinker Maurice Blondel and a friend of the Blondel family.

In 2006, the bishop of Babolin’s diocese in Padova, Italy, asked Babolin to take up the ministry of exorcism in response to popular demand. He says that over those eight years he has dealt with more than 1,300 cases of people with “more or less serious” spiritual disorders, and that’s just in Padova, because he declines requests for help from outside the diocese.

Reading Babolin’s text, the emphasis is very much on outreach to the suffering.

A true believer in the Devil and in possession, Babolin sees people under demonic influence as the ultimate “poor ones” of the postmodern world, not only in physical and spiritual agony, but often cut loose by friends and family and stigmatized by society.

Babolin writes that love is the key to breaking evil’s grip, saying he was once performing an exorcism on ibe member of a married couple when the Devil shouted, “I can’t stand that they love each other!”

Though it scarcely needs to be said, “All you need is love” hardly sounds like an anthem of the political right.

Babolin says the other powerful weapon against the Devil’s grip is an act of forgiveness, which he says “knocks him out.”

To be sure, Babolin hardly comes off as a progressive in terms of his intellectual views. Among other things, he blasts “New Age” thinking tinged by Eastern religious concepts for watering down the distinction between truth and falsehood, giving the Devil an “open field.”

Still, it’s hard to escape the impression that Babolin and other exorcists are trying to accomplish in the spiritual realm what the liberation theologians of Latin America try to do in the material, which is to put the church on the side of the poor. The parallel isn’t accidental, since the Latin Americans often insist they’re simply applying to material poverty the same message of liberation and redemption the church has long extended in the supernatural arena.

One other point exorcists often have in common with the social justice crowd is that both sometimes feel they’re not taken seriously by the hierarchy. Frankly, go to any meeting of exorcists and listen to them rant about bishops, and if you didn’t know better you’d think you were in a hotbed of leftist dissent.

Of course, the whole idea of exorcism is a tough sell to a vast swath of the population in the 21st century, both inside and outside the Catholic Church, which finds demonic possession impossible to swallow. You don’t have to believe, however, to understand, and if that’s what you’re after, the lesson here is to be skeptical of ideological categories that often conceal as much as they reveal.

Francis on ecology

The first pope to name himself after St. Francis of Assisi, who famously preached to birds and sang to “Brother Sun and Sister Moon,” is obviously going to have a special concern for the environment.

Pope Francis has repeatedly voiced this concern, including this passage from his apostolic exhortation Evangelium Gaudium: “We human beings are not the beneficiaries but the stewards of other creatures. Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.”

That line was recently memorialized on a large plaque in Rome’s Biopark, a 42-acre garden in the Villa Borghese that preserves members of 222 endangered species. The plaque is accompanied by two large images, one showing Francis in St. Peter’s Square in January supporting a parrot on his outstretched fingers, and other with Pope (and now Saint) John Paul II in Australia in 1986 embracing a koala bear.

In late January, a Vatican spokesman said that Francis had begun work on a major document on ecology which could eventually become an encyclical letter, usually considered the most developed form of papal teaching. If so, it would be the first-ever encyclical entirely devoted to environmental themes.

Another sign of this papacy’s commitment to moving the ball on environmental protection is unfolding right now in Rome with a major conference sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences called “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility.”

(As a footnote, the chancellor of both academies is Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, a 71-year-old Argentine whose political stock is seen as significantly up under Francis. Increasingly, the pope seems to turn to his countryman to handle projects that are especially near and dear to his heart, such as a recent peace conference on Syria, an initiative on human trafficking, and now this environmental summit.)

The five-day workshop features an A-list of heavyweights, including Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, coordinator of the pope’s “G8” council of cardinal advisers, and Archbishop Roland Minnerath of Dijon, France, long seen as one of the most impressive intellectuals among the current crop of European prelates.

It’s also drawing on secular experts such as Partha Sarathi Dasgupta, a Cambridge University economist, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, San Diego, focused on reducing sooty pollution and climate change.

“No sin is more heartless than our blindness to the value of all that surrounds us and our persistence in using it at the wrong time and abusing it at all times,” Rodriguez Maradiaga told the meeting.

It remains to be seen what concrete ideas or initiatives may flow out of the May 2-6 Vatican summit, but the mere fact that it’s happening, and with such a striking cast of characters, is additional proof that Francis and his team intend to make ecology a cornerstone of their social agenda.

Related: More from John L. Allen Jr.

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.

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