Catholic Church sets up committee to fight child abuse
Any action to prevent abuse by priests is to be welcomed, but the Vatican's evasion of difficult questions at the UN suggests there are still reasons to doubt the Church's transparency
On Thursday, the Archbishop of Boston announced that Pope Francis is to set up a committee to fight sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. The committee will keep the Pope informed about the programmes in place for the protection of children, and formulate new initiatives to prevent abuse. The pontiff promised shortly after his election to take "decisive action" on clerical child abuse – a scandal that has rocked the Church all over the world.
However, what might make yesterday’s announcement less impressive is the Vatican’s refusal to provide information to the UN earlier this week. On Tuesday, news emerged that the Holy See had declined to respond to questions laid out by the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on such topics as whether priests found guilty of sex abuse are allowed to stay in contact with children, and whether victims’ complaints have been silenced. Explaining its silence at the UN, the Holy See said it was "separate and distinct" from the Roman Catholic Church, and that it does not disclose information about the religious discipline of clergy unless specifically requested by the authorities in the country where they were serving. Vatican is to be questioned further by the CRC in January.
It seems slightly odd that the successor of St Peter should have little knowledge or responsibility for what goes on in his Churches outside the Papal State. What seems more likely is that the Vatican has yet again executed an image-managing move in an attempt to dodge uncomfortable questions from outsiders by offering an internal “fix”. The same happened in July, when the CRC published the list of issues it would like Holy See to address: a few days after the list came out, the Vatican installed new legislation on crimes against minors with tough punishments for sex abuse.
While any attempt by the Catholic Church to deal with the child sex abuse scandal should be welcomed, it’s not likely that the Pope’s new committee will provide relief to those who have already suffered in the hands of predatory priests. The Holy See proved at the UN that Pope Francis’s reformations do not include public “naming and shaming” of guilty clerics, so past abuse cases are to remain in the dark. The Pope may have words of sympathy to offer to the victims, but when it comes to real actions, Francis may not be the great reformer his adoring fans would like to think he is.
However, what we can maybe expect from the new committee is deterrence of future abuse: Pope Francis may not be willing or able to fix the Church’s past wrongs, but he seems determined to make sure the image of the Holy See does not sink any lower during his reign. As the former Pope, Benedict XVI, found out, abuse cases do not stay hidden, so for Pope Francis the best way to protect the Church’s reputation is to do everything in his power to stop new cases from happening.
Nevertheless, the message from the Holy See seems to be that for all Pope Francis's projection of a new and more open Catholicism, any reforms of the Church's affairs will be conducted on the Vatican's terms, and not on those of its external critics.