By David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey
The United Nations committee that monitors compliance with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment is being urged by several influential nongovernmental organizations to condemn the Vatican when the committee meets this week in Geneva. These groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, claim that the Catholic Church’s handling of child-sexual-abuse accusations against priests and the church’s stand on birth control and abortion amount to violations of the Convention Against Torture.
If the U.N. committee were to grant the groups’ request and conclude that the Vatican has violated the Convention Against Torture, this would represent a legally insupportable and perverse interpretation of the treaty, actually weakening its effectiveness. It would also represent a blatant attack on religious freedom.
There is no doubt that for years the Catholic Church failed to deal in a timely and effective way with child sexual abuse by priests. More recently, however, the church has admitted its mistakes and instituted fundamental reforms to root out the problem, which is hardly unique to Catholics. According to the U.N.’s own World Health Organization Fact Sheet No. 150 on child maltreatment, “approximately 20% of women and 5-10% of men report being sexually abused as children.”
No one doubts the evil of child sexual abuse, but attempting to shoehorn it into the Convention Against Torture is legally incorrect. However monolithic the Catholic Church may seem, it is not a sovereign state, and the Vatican (which is) has no legal authority over the church hierarchy or the millions of Catholic believers around the world.