The Vatican was the subject Wednesday of a blistering critique by a UN human rights committee that accused the Catholic Church of systematically adopting policies that permitted priests to sexually abuse tens of thousands of children globally over the last several decades.
The United Nations committee faulted the church for failing to take effective measures to reveal the breadth of clergy sexual abuse in the past, and for not adopting measures to sufficiently protect Catholic children in the future.
“The committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse,” the report said.
The report also criticized the church’s culture of secrecy and longstanding practice of silencing abuse victims in order to protect the reputation of priests and the church’s moral authority worldwide, asserting that the church had systematically placed preservation of the reputation of the church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims.
On Wednesday, the general reaction to the UN’s condemnation of the Vatican was forceful and unequivocal, especially from those who have pressed for greater transparency and accountability from the Catholic Church in the wake of the clergy abuse crisis.
Terence McKiernan, president of the Massachusetts nonprofit Bishop Accountability, predicted that the impact of the UN findings will likely be profound.
“The depth and gravity of the Catholic Church’s abuse problem have now been confirmed by an international body,” McKiernan said.
Thomas H. Groome, professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, said the committee’s report should spur the Vatican to adopt stronger policies to prevent abuse.
“Whatever excuses the church may have cited for its egregious handling of clergy sexual abuse in the past (e.g., that it didn’t know the harm this did to children), it certainly has no excuse going forward,” Groome said in an e-mail. “It must embrace this report, facing it with total honesty, and then determine to implement what needs to be done to ensure that our church is never again so irresponsible and our Catholic faith never again so betrayed.”
The UN committee’s findings and recommendations follow last month’s daylong interrogation of Vatican officials, part of the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN treaty on child protection that the Holy See ratified in 1990.
The Vatican responded swiftly, saying it would submit the committee’s findings to a thorough study and examination while upholding a commitment to children’s rights spelled out in the UN treaty. But the Vatican also noted that the committee’s report faulted the church for matters unrelated to clergy sexual abuse that the Holy See considers central to church teachings, such as stands against contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
“The Holy See does, however, regret to see in some points of the concluding observations an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom,” the Vatican said.
The UN report highlighted two issues that have long riled victims of clergy abuse and, more privately, many priests: the church’s failure to discipline bishops for permitting abusive priests to remain in ministry by shuttling them from one diocese to another, and the insistence by Vatican officials that they have limited authority over bishops and the priests who serve under them.
The Vatican has yet to discipline a single bishop for enabling abusive priests to continue molesting children. Indeed, in 2012 Bishop Robert W. Finn, head of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri, was found guilty by a court of failing to report suspected child abuse, yet he continues to hold his position.
But some church officials, including Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, have said holding bishops accountable for the abuses committed by their priests is important, suggesting that Pope Francis, who has said little about the clergy sexual abuse crisis, may address the issue.
In December, O’Malley announced the creation of a Vatican commission on protecting children from abuse, marking the church’s first comprehensive effort to address the abuse crisis globally.
Speaking in Rome at the time, O’Malley said the commission would advise the pope on the protection of children and the pastoral care of abuse victims but withheld details on the panel’s makeup and a timeline to submit recommendations. When asked whether the commission would deal with bishop accountability, O’Malley said then that that was something the church needed to address. But also said that he was not sure whether the commission or a Vatican department would take it on.
On Wednesday, the UN called on the Vatican commission to conduct a sweeping investigation of all cases of clergy abuse as well as the manner in which the church has responded over time. It also urged the Holy See to lay out rules for the mandatory reporting of abuse to police, and to support laws that allow victims to report crimes even if statutes of limitation have expired. It also urged the Vatican to compensate victims and hold accountable those who covered up clergy abuse.
O’Malley, a figure of increasing influence at the Vatican, was named archbishop of Boston in 2003 after Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned in the wake of a year of stories by The Boston Globe that ignited the worldwide clergy sexual abuse crisis. The Globe revealed that Law had covered up abuse by scores of priests in the Boston Archdiocese, authorizing secret financial settlements with victims while shuttling abusive priests from one diocese to another, often resulting in their continued abuse of children.
Since his arrival, O’Malley has been credited with taking steps to prevent clergy sexual abuse, initiating measures to educate children and those who work with them about the dangers of abuse, while requiring all diocesan officials who work with children to submit to criminal background checks.
But O’Malley also faced criticism in 2010, when he released a roster of 159 priests accused of abusing minors in the Boston Archdiocese but omitted the names of 70 accused priests who were from religious orders. O’Malley argued that those priests — some had notorious reputations and had served prison sentences — were the responsibility of their religious orders.
Bishop Accountability’s McKiernan said he finds particular significance in the UN’s recommendations regarding the composition of the newly formed Vatican commission on protecting children. The UN urged the Vatican to include organizations representing victims, as well as members of civil society.
The UN, McKiernan noted, also said the panel’s findings should be made public.
“The emphasis on transparency and on the enabling of abuse, as well as the abuse itself, will make it difficult (but not impossible) for the Holy See to ignore these crucial concerns,” McKiernan said in an e-mail. “And if the Holy See does ignore them, everyone will have the leverage of this report at their disposal.”
But some Catholic groups complained that the UN committee failed to acknowledge work the church had done to curb abuse.
“The responsible committee appears to have overlooked the last decade, in which the church has taken serious measures to protect children,” said Ashley McGuire of The Catholic Association, a policy group that describes itself as “a faithful Catholic voice in the public square.”
Voice of the Faithful, a confederation of lay Catholics that began in a Wellesley church basement following the abuse crisis, said the UN’s findings offered confirmation of the longstanding complaints of parishioners and abuse victims.
“The UN is now saying what we and other victims’ rights groups worldwide have always insisted,” said Nick Ingala, a spokesman for the organization.
Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, declined to comment, directing reporters to the Vatican for response.