Friday, February 7, 2014

Vatican human rights -- the Committee speaks

The Committee on the Rights of the Child released its concluding observations on Wednesday for each of the countries whose reports were reviewed during their current session.  This included the report of the Holy See.  The press coverage was extensive and as you probably know the Committee's report was hard hitting, with many strong criticisms and specific, concrete recommendations.

I will discuss other aspects of the Committee's session later, but in this post I would like to address the overall impact and impressions of the Holy See report and conclusions.

First, lets look at the Holy See's report itself.  It was filed 14 years late. The Vatican had last appeared before the Committee in 1995.  They were supposed to submit updated reports every five years. This report was submitted in September 2011 but it had been due since 1997.  As a consequence, most of the revelations about priest and church hierarchy abuse had surfaced since the last report had been filed.

Second, the length of the report, 41 pages, is actually below the page limits recommended by the Committee (60 pages) even though it was a combined report, covering 16 years of activities.  Most state reports are much longer, often exceeding the 60 page limit. The Vatican has also elected not to file what is called as a common core document, which could cover some of the more generic information about its government, legislation and demographics which is common to all treaties.  Common core documents are submitted by most governments, and have a recommended page limit of 80 pages.  Since the Vatican didn't file a core document much of the material in their report was actually generic in nature and could have been moved to the core report, had they elected to submit one.  So the actual detailed information in the 41 page report that they submitted was far less specific than in most state reports.

The third criterion I usually look at in assessing the completeness of a report is whether or not it addresses the concluding recommendations of the Committee from the last report.  In this case, that would mean, did it cover the recommendations from the 1995 report of the Committee? Here I thought the Vatican did a fairly good job of responding to each recommendation of the 1995 report. Although the quality of the responses was not great, at least they made the effort to respond in some form to each of the recommendations.  Many states don't even do that much in their reports. However, even on this point the Committee was quite critical of the delegation for failing to effectively respond to their prior recommendations.

In terms of the Committee's concluding recommendations, they covered 16 pages and 67 paragraphs, with 32 of those being specific paragraphs with recommendations.  Taking into account subparagraphs and subpoints I counted at least 76 separate recommendations.

The full text of the Committee's report can be downloaded here.

Among the notable observations and recommendations, were the following (paragraph references are in parentheses):

  • Most of the prior recommendations of the Committee have not been addressed by the state party in the present report (9)
  • The Committee welcomes the statement of the delegation that the Holy See may possibly withdraw the reservations they have previously filed to the Convention; and recommends that they do so in order that it is clear that the Convention has precedence over internal laws and regulations (11, 12)
  • Recommends that the Holy See establish a mechanism at a high level with the mandate and capacity to coordinate the implementation of children’s rights across all pontifical councils, episcopal conferences of bishops as well as individuals institutions of a religious nature that function under the authority of the Holy See. (16)
  • Notes the Special Office established in August 2013 to oversee the implementation of international agreements, including to receive children’s complaints on sexual abuse, but the Committee believes more must be done. An independent mechanism should be established to receive and investigate children’s complaints in a child-sensitive manner, and ensure that this mechanism is made accessible to all children in schools, services and institutions provided by the Catholic Church. Given the special nature of the Holy See, guidelines on the relationship and collaboration between this mechanism and national law enforcement authorities, should also be established and widely disseminated. (19, 20)
  • Remove gender stereotypes from Catholic school textbooks. (28)
  • The number of children born of Catholic priests should be assessed, find out who they are and take all necessary measures to ensure the rights of these children to know and be cared for by their fathers, as appropriate. Churches should no longer impose confidentiality agreements on mothers who receive financial plans to support their children. (34)
  • Concern about the continued practice of anonymous abandonment of babies organized by Catholic organizations in several countries through the use of the so-called “baby boxes.” The Holy See should study the root causes of anonymous abandonment, strengthen and promote alternatives, provide family planning and counseling to prevent unplanned pregnancies. (35, 36)
  • Failure to adequately investigate and remedy the plight of the women and girls who were forced to work in slavery-like conditions in the Magdalene laundries of Ireland run by four congregations of Catholic Sisters until 1996. Also addressed by the Committee against Torture in their recommendations to the Republic of Ireland. The Committee calls on the Holy See to conduct an internal investigation into this event as well as in all countries where this system was in place, to ensure those responsible are sanctioned and reported to the national judicial authorities for prosecution purposes; ensure that compensation is paid to the victims; provide support to the victims; assess the circumstances and reasons that led to such practices and take all necessary measures to ensure that no women and children can be arbitrarily confined for whatever reason in Catholic institutions in the future. (37, 38)
  • Corporal punishment, including ritual beatings of children, has been and remains widespread in some Catholic institutions and reached endemic levels in certain countries. The Committee calls on the Holy See to amend both Canon Law and Vatican City State laws to explicitly prohibit all corporal punishment of children, and establish mechanisms to effectively enforce this ban in all Catholic schools and institutions. (39, 40)
  • Deepest concern over child abuse committed by members of the Catholic churches, involving the sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children worldwide. Well known sexual abusers have been transferred from parish to parish. The Holy See has claimed to investigate but has declined to provide the Committee with data on cases or the outcome of the internal procedures. Abuse has been dealt with in confidential proceedings, allowing the vast majority of abusers to escape judicial prosecution. Reporting to national law enforcement authorities has never been made compulsory by the church. Code of silence imposed on all members of the clergy under penalty of excommunication. The Committee calls on the Holy See (43,44):
    • To ensure that the new Commission created in December 2013 will investigate independently all cases of child sexual abuse as well as the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them
    •  Immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers, & refer the matter to relevant law enforcement authorities
    • Ensure a transparent sharing of archives
    • Amend Canon Law in order to consider any child sexual abuse to be a crime; repeal all obligations of silence on victims and on all those that become aware of such crimes
    • Establish clear rules, mechanisms and procedures for mandatory reporting of all suspected cases of child sexual abuse
    • Ensure that all priests, religious personnel and individuals working under the authority of the Holy See are made aware of their reporting obligations
    • Develop programs and policies for the prevention of such crimes
    • Develop educational preventive programs to increase children’s awareness of sexual abuse and to teach them the necessary skills with which to protect themselves
    • Consider ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (43, 44) 
  • Concern that the Holy See objected to draft text at the 2013 session of the Commission on the Status of Women that would have prevented governments from using religion, custom or tradition as an excuse for not protecting women and girls from violence. (45). Calls on the Holy See to prioritize the elimination of all forms of violence against children. (46)
  • The Holy See should promote the creation of helplines in all countries, raise awareness of their existence and encourage children to use them. (47)
  • Adopt a policy for the de-institutionalization of children placed in Catholic Church-run institutions and for the reunification with their families, where possible. (53)
  • Establish comprehensive procedures for the early identification of child victims of sexual and other forms of abuse.  Ensure accessible, confidential, child-friendly and effective reporting channels for children who are victims or witnesses of sexual abuse, and that they are protected from retaliation. (61)

What are the next steps?

      The Committee has requested that the Holy See file its next report no later than September 1, 2017, in 3 3/4 years. This is a relatively short time period as these deadlines go and it means that the government will need to get busy in responding to and implementing the 76 recommendations made. 

      There will also be pressure put on the Vatican to demonstrate early progress toward implementing these recommendations, especially the ones that are reasonably simple to implement and/or that the delegation indicated at the hearing it was already considering actions on. 

      The next treaty body hearing for the Holy See is this May, before the Committee Against Torture (CAT).  The dates of review have been tentatively set for May 12 and 13. The sessions will also be webcast. Many of the same questions and criticisms will no doubt be raised as were made in the Committee on the Rights of the Child, but clever advocates will try to push the agenda forward by pointing to the conclusions of this Committee and the assurances made by the delegation here as well as statements of the Pope and the Church in public media, to produce tangible evidence of concrete actions that the Holy See is taking. If you would like to follow the developments before CAT you can check the Committee website and also track the latest news on Twitter with hashtag #HolySeeConfess.  

      The NGOs CRIN, CCR and SNAP are also likely to cover the CAT proceedings very closely, as they did with the CRC hearing. 

      The Holy See is also overdue on two other reports for treaties that it has ratified: the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CED) (one year overdue) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) (14 years overdue).  One would hope they would submit those reports soon and that those treaty bodies would also have an opportunity to question the delegation on its human rights obligations in the not too distant future. 

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