As one of the 193 parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Holy See is required to report periodically on its progress in implementing the rights protected in the agreement. According to Article 44,
States Parties undertake to submit to the Committee, through the Secretary-General of the United Nations, reports on the measures they have adopted which give effect to the rights recognized herein and on the progress made on the enjoyment of those rights(a) Within two years of the entry into force of the Convention for the State Party concerned;(b) Thereafter every five years.
For the first time since its initial report to the CRC in 1994, the Holy See has submitted a report required by Article 44 to the Committee. Senior Vatican officials, including Bishop Charles J. Scicluna, who prosecuted child sexual abuse cases for the Holy See until 2012, appeared before the CRC on January 16 to answer the Committee's questions. Yesterday the Committee issued its report (formally called Concluding Observations) on the Holy See's progress toward implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Committee's report condemned the Vatican for its many failures concerning child sexual abuse by priests. The report stated, "The committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators." The report stated that "the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the church and the protection of the perpetrators above children's best interests, as observed by several national commissions of inquiry."
In response to questions from the CRC last year, representatives of the Holy See had argued that, as a state exercising jurisdiction only in the small territory of the Vatican, it was unable to subject priests living and working in the jurisdiction of other states to the kind of control suggested by the Committee. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), representing the Survivors' Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), called this argument "disingenuous and misleading." The CRC also rejected this claim regarding the constraints imposed by territorial jurisdiction.
The child sexual abuse scandal was not the only issue covered in the Committee's Concluding Observations on the Holy See's report. In her comments for the media summarizing the report, CRC member Kirsten Sandberg said, "The Holy See's past statements on homosexuality have contributed to the social stigmatization of and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered adolescents and children raised by same-sex couples." This finding and a finding regarding the negative impacts of the Roman Catholic Church's teachings on contraception and abortion on adolescents (including young girls impregnated by rape) brought a response from the Vatican stating that "the Holy See . . . regret[s] to see in some points of the Concluding Observations an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of the human person and in the exercise of religious freedom."
Sandberg's summary of the Committee's report also noted, "The Holy See has not taken the necessary measures to protect and ensure justice for girls who were arbitrarily placed by their families, state institutions, and churches in the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland run by four congregations of Catholic sisters until 1996." This issue has recently gained renewed public attention through Philomena, a best film Oscar nominee currently in release. Judi Dench, who plays an Irish woman looking for the child she bore in one of the Magdalene Laundries many years before, received a best-actress nomination.
The power of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (and the other treaty bodies in the UN human rights system) is limited to the ability to applaud progress and shine a light on failures. Sometimes, though, that is enough to promote change. How Pope Francis responds to the CRC's spotlight on the Catholic Church's failure to protect children will be an important test of the character of his papacy. And for the Holy See, it will go a long way toward determining how much soft power remains. This is important because the Holy See has no other kind of power.