In a report that could expose the Catholic Church to new legal arguments by clerical sex abuse victims, a U.N. committee found Friday that the Vatican does exercise worldwide control over its bishops and priests and must comply with the U.N.'s anti-torture treaty.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture concluded that Vatican officials failed to report sex abuse charges properly, had moved priests rather than discipline them, and had failed to pay adequate compensation to victims. Although the panel did not explicitly say that the Holy See had violated any of its obligations under the anti-torture treaty, which it ratified in 2002, panel members said that was implicit in the criticism.
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"Legal scholars will tell you that when the committee addresses a problem and makes a recommendation, it sees the state as not meeting the requirements of the convention," the panel vice chair, Felice Gaer, told reporters. "It's absolutely clear what we're saying."
But the Vatican dismissed the 10-member panel's conclusions as "fundamentally flawed" and insisted it didn't exercise direct control over its priests worldwide.
The report's most immediate impact may be to empower victims pressing the Vatican to take more legal responsibility for priests who raped and molested children. The Holy See long has sought to distance itself from the conduct of pedophile priests and the bishops overseeing them, saying the church's own structure isn't the centrally organized, top-down hierarchy that the lawyers for victims have often described.
Earlier this month, the Holy See revealed to the committee that it had defrocked 848 priests and imposed lesser penalties on 2,572 others since 2004. Those figures reflected only those complaints handled directly by the Holy See, not those left in the hands of dioceses, so the total number of sanctioned priests worldwide could be much higher.
Crucially, the committee rejected the Holy See's position that it should be legally liable for enforcing the treaty only within the tiny confines of Vatican City itself. Church leaders consistently have argued that legal responsibility for abuse lies with the bishops and the leaders of individual congregations of priests, nuns and brothers.
The committee said the Vatican, like all parties to the treaty, must ensure that the treaty isn't violated by its representatives anywhere worldwide. It said the Vatican's contention that it did not enforce control over church personnel outside Vatican City borders was "not consistent" with the treaty or the Vatican's own laws.
The panel said ratifying parties to the torture treaty, including the Vatican, "bear international responsibility for the acts and omissions of their officials and others acting in an official capacity or acting on behalf of the state."
In reply Friday, the Vatican accused the panel of sloppy reasoning. It insisted the committee was wrong "to give the impression that all the priests serving around the world are indirectly, legally tied to the Vatican."
The Vatican said it was not even indirectly responsible for enforcing the treaty's anti-torture obligations on all the world's 440,000 priests and the Vatican's own laws do not imply such a level of legal control.
Asked about that Vatican statement, Gaer told reporters: "We're not suggesting that the Holy See is responsible for the actions of every Catholic. But the officials of the Holy See do exercise control over a significant range of conduct that takes place outside the four corners of Vatican City."
The Vatican stressed that the committee's report had not explicitly stated whether it believes that rape and sexual abuse constitute a form of torture and therefore violate the Holy See's treaty obligations. It said the U.N. report makes "an implicit fundamental assumption" that any sexual abuse is equivalent to torture, an assumption not supported by the treaty.
Panel members, however, say it has been firmly established in international law that rape and sexual violence can amount to torture, on a case-by-case basis. They said the torture committee had referred to cases of rape and sexual abuse in about 50 other reviews over the past decade.
"We're not saying that any sexual abuse is equivalent to a form of torture. We need to see the circumstances. The issue here is the responsibility of a state," said the committee's chairman, Claudio Grossman. "A responsibility of a state comes into play if there was no prevention or there was no investigation and punishment."
In 2001, the Vatican required bishops and religious superiors to forward all credible cases of abuse to Rome for review. That followed findings that pedophile priests were being shuffled from diocese to diocese, rather than facing church trials or police investigations. The Vatican in 2010 told bishops and superiors they must report credible cases to police when required by local laws.
The committee's review marked the second time this year that the Vatican has been forced to appear before a U.N. committee in Geneva and peppered with questions about its handling of abuse cases.
The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded in February that the Vatican systematically placed its own interests over those of victims by enabling priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children through a code of silence.