Vatican before UN committee over child abuse

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The Catholic Church has long been plagued with accusations of clerical sexual abuse, often concerning minors.

January 16 marked the first time that a representative of the Church was forced to stand before the UN Committee of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) to give account of the measures being taken by the Vatican to tackle the issue.

Experts from the UN committee questioned Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See, which is legally bound by the CRC to protect and nurture the most vulnerable members of society, including children.

The Vatican is under pressure to explain the way it has dealt with allegations of sex abuse by members of its clergy, following years of allegations that some bishops covered up or turned a blind eye to crimes committed within their jurisdiction.

Accusations have been made on a global scale. In September 2010, the details of around 300 cases of alleged sexual abuse by Belgian clergy were released, while a 2012 Australian police report detailed the suicides of 40 people who had been abused by Catholic priests.

Between 1984 and 2009, over 3,000 lawsuits were filed against Catholic clergy in the US, and the Church has reportedly paid out over $3bn in settlements to victims. The John Jay report of 2009 found that sexual abuse was "endemic" in Catholic boys' institutions for much of the 20th century. Italian officials admitted in 2010 that approximately 100 reports against paedophile priests had been made over a period of 10 years.

In Northern Ireland earlier this week, the Sisters of Nazareth became the second Catholic order to admit that children were sexually and physical abused in their care. Their admission follows that of the De La Salle Brothers, which on Tuesday issued an apology in court "to all those whom they failed to protect".

This was the context for Archbishop Tomasi's presentation of the Holy See's periodic report on clerical abuse in Geneva yesterday, during which he said: "The protection of children remains a major concern for contemporary society and the Holy See."

He reiterated the Catholic Church's commitment "to holding inviolable the dignity and entire person of every child".

"There is no excuse for any form of violence or exploitation of children. Such crimes can never be justified," he said.

Archbishop Tomasi went on to say that policies and procedures were being put in place "to help eliminate such abuse and to collaborate with respective State authorities to fight against this crime".

The Vatican, the Archbishop noted, has enacted special legislation "to implement international legal obligations" and "taken concrete action by the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990".

At the local level, Catholic churches are being given support to develop and implement effective measures in their communities in line with official Church and government guidelines on the protection of vulnerable people.

"The result of the combined action taken by local churches and by the Holy See presents a framework that, when properly applied, will help eliminate the occurrence of child sexual abuse by clergy and other church personnel," the Archbishop asserted.

With regards to those who are already victims of sexual abuse, the Holy See has expressed a commitment to responding to and providing for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

Archbishop Tomasi quoted Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2006 labelled cases of sexual abuse as "heart-rending" and made "all the more tragic when the abuser is a cleric".

The Prelate also mentioned Pope Francis' Commission for the Protection of Minors, which proposes "new initiatives for the development of safe environment programs for children and improving efforts for the pastoral care for victims of abuse around the world".

The Pope has repeatedly made clear his determination to deal with the issue of sexual abuse in the Church, labelling such action as vital in order to maintain credibility.

Following his election last March, he declared that the Vatican would "act decisively as far as cases of sexual abuse are concerned, promoting measures to protect minors, help for those who have suffered such violence in the past [and] the necessary procedures against those who are guilty".
Kirsten Sandberg, chairwoman of the CRC, told the Vatican delegation: "The view of committee is that the best way to prevent abuses is to reveal old ones - openness instead of sweeping offences under the carpet. It seems to date your procedures are not very transparent."

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