The United Nations investigation of the Roman Catholic clergy in the sexual abuse of children has finally reached Vatican City. The Holy See — seat of the world’s largest Christian denomination with over 1.2 billion faithful followers has been rocked by a child-sex scandal that has shattered the veneer of immaculate purity maintained by the church. In the face of damning charges of the rampant sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in over twenty-five countries, the United Nations has reacted strongly by launching an investigation. The investigation is to be conducted through the Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) that directly targets the only credible source of data about these cases: The Vatican City.
The history of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests and nuns has been documented as far back as the mid-1950s with the case of the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, a Mexican priest who was accused, censured but never convicted of drug abuse and sexual dalliances with children, adolescents and adults in his congregation. However, the scandal exploded in 2002 after decades of abuse by American and Australian priests came to light. The alleged mishandling of cases by the Vatican City and a line of popes since Pius XII, has prompted the United Nations’ investigation of the Vatican City in the hope of understanding the spread of the scandal.
The UNCRC, an international body of human rights legal experts is said to be investigating Vatican City church officials and demanding data that reveals the actual number of documented cases where children as young as 11 have suffered sexual abuse. Since the 2002 revelations, victims around the world—many in their mid-40s and mid-50s have been vocal in their criticism of the Vatican’s silence and apparent abetment of the sexual abuse of minors. Barbara Blaine, former victim and founder of the self-help organization Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in an interview with TIME lamented: “Many of us who were abused by an assistant pastor looked to the pastor to make things right, then the bishop, then the Vatican. No one fixed the problem. What authority in the world can hold the Vatican accountable?”
The UN seems to have stepped in to investigate this sex scandal by holding the Vatican City responsible for the submission of data that could reveal the true extent of a scandal that has been smoldering for over half a century. Even so, it remains unclear as to who will actually answer the UNCRC demand. While Pope Francis is celebrated around the world as the changing face of the Catholic Church, the church itself is seen as a powerful, layered and secretive organization that exercises control over its own city-state, its own protection, and importantly, a vast and unknown reserve of wealth. While the pontiff himself may never be called to answer the world’s largest inter-governmental organization, it is a matter of speculation as to which of the Curia agencies (that include the custodians of the Vatican Secret Archives and the Vatican Diplomatic Corps) will be involved in framing a response.
The difficult task of articulating this response seems to have fallen to Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi, representative of the pontiff as the Permanent Observer of the Holy See Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. Preliminary investigations have placed the Holy See on the defensive, with UNCRC chairperson and lawyer Kirsten Sandberg commenting on the Vatican’s lack of procedure in the investigation of sexual abuse by its own clergy. Whether the Vatican will truly be able to respond to an irrefutable body of evidence that extends for over 60 years is a matter that only time will tell.
By Grace Stephen