IHEU responds to the Holy See

  • Date / 3 October 2009

On 22 September, speaking in the plenary of the UN Human Rights Council, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), representing more that 100 humanist, secular and free-thought organisations in over 40 countries, criticised the Holy See over its role in covering up the scale of child abuse by its priests and religious orders, and for failing to honour its obligations under international law. The statement was based on a longer written statement submitted to the Council in August and published by the UN on 8 September.[1]

The IHEU statement addressed specifically the role of the Holy See – which claims responsibility for the Catholic Church worldwide – in attempting to cover up the extent of child abuse perpetrated by its priests and religious orders. In exercising their right of reply to this criticism the representative of the Holy See ignored the main criticism contained in our statement.

The reply made on behalf of the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Thomasi argued that the Catholic Church was not unique in having clergy who sexually abused children and young people, but it made no mention of the physical and mental abuse meted out for generations to children under the care of its religious orders. No doubt there are abusers in all walks of life, but our point was not the abuse itself but the cover up in which some of the highest officials of the Church were implicated.

The Holy See is a sovereign state and its senior clergy, safely ensconced in the Vatican out of reach of civil law, are answerable to no earthly power other than themselves – and to the few international treaties to which they are party. One such is the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and, as shown in the IHEU report, the Holy See is in massive breach of its obligations under that convention.

Commenting on the Holy See’s response, IHEU Main Representative in Geneva, Roy Brown, said: “By failing to address this issue while seeking to point the finger of blame elsewhere, the Holy See’ has scored a spectacular own goal. One senior UN official described their reply as ‘a disgrace’. We agree.”

Here is the Holy See’s reply in full, with our comments.


Mr. President

Let me clarify the issue raised by the International Humanist and Ethical Union in its intervention

  • In the upcoming report of the Holy See to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is finalized as we speak, a paragraph will be dedicated to the problem of child abuse by catholic clergy.

It will be interesting to see whether this “paragraph” touches the massive efforts by the Church to cover up the abuse, to discredit victims, to keep abusers and those involved in cover-ups in office, to minimise the damages they pay, and to get others to pay compensation for them.

  • While many speak of child abuse, i.e. pedophilia, it would be more correct to speak of ephebophilia, being a homosexual attraction to adolescent males. Of all priests involved in the abuses, 80 to 90% belong to this sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the age of 11 and 17 years old.

So abuse of an 11 year old boy is fine: it isn’t paedophilia.

  • From available research we now know that in the last fifty years somewhere between 1.5% and 5% of the catholic clergy has been involved in sexual abuse cases. The Christian Science Monitor reported on the results of a national survey by Christian Ministry Resources in 2002 and concluded: “Despite headlines focusing on the priest pedophile problem in the Roman Catholic Church, most American churches being hit with child sexual-abuse allegations are Protestant”.[1] Sexual abuses within the Jewish communities approximate that found among the Protestant clergy.[2]

The point here being that there are twice as many protestant Churches as Catholic Churches in America – a point made in the article they cite, but conveniently omitted from their response.

  • About 85% of the offenders of child sexual abuse are family members, babysitters, neighbors, family friends or relatives. About one in six child molesters are other children, while most of the offenders are male[3].

We had understood that the Church and its priests were supposed to set a moral example. Certainly the prestige in which they are held in certain states is based purely on that assumption.

  • According to a major 2004 study commissioned by the US Department of Education, nearly 10 percent of US Public school students have been targeted with unwanted sexual attention by school employees. The author of the study concluded that the scope of the school-sex problem appears to far exceed the clergy abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church and concluded in an interview with Education Week “the physical abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests”.[4]

Others are worse, so that absolves the Church?

  • The Church is very conscious of the seriousness of the problem. The Code of Canon Law stipulates that priests involved in sexual abuse cases must be “punished with just punishments, not excluding expulsion from clerical state”[5].

Again a plea that offending priests be judged under Canon law. No. They must be judged under civil law like everyone else.

  • The American Bishops Conference issued in 2002 “essential norms for diocesan/eparchial policies dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests or deacons”. The guidelines mention among others that “in case of sufficient evidence the bishop will withdraw the accused from exercising the ministry, impose or prohibit residence in a given place or territory…pending the outcome of the process”. Other National Bishops Conferences have taken similar measures.

“Given sufficient evidence” is a clear attempt to justify inaction by the Church hierarchy. Who is to judge whether there is sufficient evidence? The local bishop? No. The only authority that should decide whether there is sufficient evidence is the civil authority.

  • As the Catholic Church has been busy cleaning its own house, it would be good if other institutions and authorities, where the major part of abuses are reported, could do the same and inform the media about it.

There is no evidence that the Catholic Church has even begun to clean its own house. Quite the contrary. This reply completely, and no doubt deliberately, misses the point. It is not about sex abuse per se, but about the actions of the Holy See, which claims responsibility for Catholic Churches worldwide, to evade responsibility (the absence of any report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child is evidence for this) and to avoid damage to the authority of the Church whatever the cost to the individual victims.

The Holy See should immediately take steps to reverse this policy which has been so damaging to the Church’s claim to moral authority.

1. https://humanists.international/un-publishes-iheu-statement-child-abuse-and-holy-see
2. Mark Clayton, “Sex Abuse Spans Spectrum of Churches”, Christian Science Monitor, April 5, 2002, p.1.
3 Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer, “Rabbi Sexual Misconduct: Crying Out for a Communal Response”, www.rrc.edu/journal, November 24, 2003.
4. Dr. Grath A. Rattray, “Child Month and Paedophilia”, The Gleaner, May 14, 2002
5. Caroline Hendrie, “Sexual Abuse by Educators Scrutinized”, in: Education Week, March 10, 2004
6. CIC C. 1395 § 2.

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