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WASHINGTON • A United Nations committee is set to publish its verdict Friday on the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. It's hard to tell what the result is going be. But it's entirely possible that the committee will rule that the Vatican is guilty of violating international laws on torture for allowing Catholic priests to commit acts of pedophilia (and by covering up their crimes).
If the U.N. Committee Against Torture rules against the Holy See, church leaders will have only themselves to blame. Both the recently canonized John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, could have chosen to tackle the abuse allegations head-on. Instead they went to considerable effort to cover up cases of abuse, in some cases moving suspect priests away from their accusers to help them evade criminal responsibility.
But it has now been 12 weeks since another United Nations panel released a lengthy report about the church's on-going clergy sexual violence and cover up crisis. That panel made 22 recommendations on how Vatican officials can better implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
As best we can tell, every Catholic official is ignoring every one of those recommendations. That is shameful.
We expect on Friday, when the U.N. Committee Against Torture issues its new report, that apologists for the Catholic hierarchy will question the panel's judgment, perhaps even its motives. We hope we are wrong.
But if that happens, we hope citizens and Catholics will look at these claims by church officials with great skepticism. The Catholic hierarchy has long tried to evade responsibility for and deflect attention from its long-standing and devastating wrongdoing by attacking those who expose clergy sexual violence and cover ups.
The Vatican should take effective measures to ensure that allegations received by its officials concerning violations of the Convention (against Torture) are communicated to the proper civil authorities to facilitate their investigation and prosecution of alleged perpetrators.
The Holy See said the U.N. body did not expressly conclude that rape or sexual abuse constitutes torture, but appeared to make an implicit fundamental assumption that it was.
Such an assumption is neither supported by the text of the CAT nor has it been accepted to date by human rights authorities, it said.
Rape and sex crimes can amount to torture or cruel treatment and the Vatican must prevent and punish such abuses, the U.N. Committee against Torture said. It had already found that sexual abuse amounted to torture in some 50 countries, officials said. "The Holy See says sexual abuse is not torture. Well, sexual abuse, including rape, can be torture, or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," Felice Gaer, a committee member, told Reuters Television. "We say whether it's cruel treatment or torture depends on the facts of the case."
"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's vice chairperson, Felice Gaer, told reporters. "It's absolutely clear what we're saying."
But the Vatican dismissed the 10-member panel's central conclusions as "fundamentally flawed" and insisted it didn't exercise direct control over its priests worldwide.
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.
The committee said the Vatican must ensure that the treaty isn't violated by its representatives anywhere worldwide.
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."
"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."
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.