Because the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has no police power, it relies on moral pressure to get member states to adopt its child protection recommendations. That is obviously what it hoped to accomplish with Wednesday’s report on the Vatican and the child abuse scandals that have rocked Catholicism over the last dozen years, issuing a stinging indictment of what it called a culture of “impunity” for perpetrators.
There is a strong possibility the fusillade from the UN panel may backfire, however, by blurring the cause of child protection with the culture wars over sexual mores.
In several sections of its report, the committee joins its critique on abuse with blunt advice to Rome to jettison church teaching on matters such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. At one stage, the panel even recommends repealing a codicil of church law that imposes automatic excommunication for participating in an abortion.
Not only are those bits of advice most unlikely to be adopted, they may actually strengthen the hand of those still in denial in the church about the enormity of the abuse scandals by allowing them to style the UN report as an all-too-familiar secular criticism driven by politics.
That could overshadow the fact that there are, in truth, many child protection recommendations in the report that the church’s own reform wing has long championed.
For instance, the panel suggests that a new papal commission on child protection, created by Pope Francis and announced in December, should be charged not only with investigating abuse charges but also instances in which bishops are alleged to have dropped the ball in applying the church’s new “zero tolerance” policy.
That is something Catholic reformers have long advocated, including one of the Vatican officials who appeared before the UN panel in Geneva Jan. 16, Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta.
Scicluna is known as the Eliot Ness of the Catholic Church when it comes to child abuse, for his role as a Vatican prosecutor in bringing down a powerful Mexican cleric accused of abuse, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ religious order.
Maciel had a vast network of Vatican friends and allies, but Scicluna went after him anyway. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI sentenced the priest, who died two years later, to a life of prayer and penance.
“A bishop can’t be a true steward if he doesn’t make the protection of children one of his top priorities,” Scicluna said in a recent interview, conceding that the church needs a stronger mechanism to hold bishops accountable if they fail to act on abuse complaints.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has said the same sort of thing, repeatedly. In a May 2010 interview with the National Catholic Reporter, for instance, O’Malley bluntly said that any bishop who knowingly transfers a priest facing credible charges of abuse “should be removed.”
If the UN committee had restricted itself to that sort of observation, it would have strengthened the hand of the O’Malleys and Sciclunas of the church, leaders who are pushing it to steer a new course. Blurring those points with an attack on Catholic teaching on sex, however, may muddy the waters.
Make no mistake, there is a strong camp in Catholicism that believes the church has been unfairly singled out in the abuse scandals and that, if anything, it has gone too far in accommodating its critics.
The powerful Italian bishops’ conference, for instance, finally adopted a set of anti-abuse guidelines only last month, and they do not include a requirement that bishops report any credible accusation of abuse to the police. The new secretary of the conference named by Pope Francis, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, said that a bishop “isn’t a public official or a public minister” and should not be expected to denounce his own priests.
Galantino is hardly an old-guard figure. He is the bishop of a small diocese and is known for the simplicity of his personal manner and his love of ordinary people, very much in sync with the style of the new pope.
That even churchmen such as he are not on board with a comprehensive “zero tolerance” approach indicates the uphill climb still facing reformers.
The danger is that when leaders such as Galantino read the UN report and stumble over the parts on the culture wars, they may be tempted to file the whole thing under the usual secular axe-grinding.
That has already started, as the Vatican’s envoy to Geneva suggested Wednesday in an interview with Vatican Radio that liberal NGOs in the UN system “reinforced an ideological line” in the drafting of the report.
Over the years, the Vatican has sometimes been accused of being spectacularly tone-deaf in its response to the abuse crisis, and there is merit to those perceptions.
Now it may be the United Nations that is off key, restocking what had been the diminishing ammo of those inclined to defend the status quo.
John L. Allen Jr., the former Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, is an associate editor of the Boston Globe, covering global Catholicism. He can be reached at John.Allen@globe.com.