UN Critiques the Holy See

Statement by Terence McKiernan

May 23, 2014

The Concluding Observations of the U.N. Committee against Torture bring some additional accountability to an institution that was for years a law unto itself.  (See also the Holy See's Initial Report.) This is a valuable development, somewhat too diplomatically implemented in the report released today.  Significantly, the Committee insisted on a broad standard for accountability.  Against the objections of the Holy See, the Concluding Observations state (para. 10) that the Holy See must be held accountable for torture committed by persons under its “effective control.”  The Committee cited (para. 10) the Holy See’s own statistics, showing that 848 priests outside the Vatican City State have been removed from the priesthood in the last decade by the Holy See – surely an example of effective control --  and that 2,572 priests have been disciplined by Rome.

Transparency: The Committee should have pushed more strongly for detailed disclosure of names and documents, instead of urging disclosure of “statistical data.”  In the hard work of transparency, statistics are not even half a loaf.  The Holy See maintains the world’s largest archive on child abuse and its mismanagement; it should have been told to release the names and detailed case files of every priest defrocked or disciplined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and by the other dicasteries responsible for those cases before the Holy See’s organizational consolidation in 2001.  Merely counting the cases is not nearly enough, particularly since such counts cannot be verified apart from the files on which they are based.

Redress: The Committee urges the Holy See to apply the redress provision of the Convention against Torture in the case of the Magdalene laundries, so that the religious orders responsible will contribute to the compensation of their victims.  Those orders, unnamed in the Concluding Observations, are the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, the Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of Charity.  Even more important, the Committee alluded to the Holy See’s acquiescence and authorization (para. 16) of the Milwaukee archdiocese’s protection of assets prior to its bankruptcy.  The Committee was referring to the exchange of letters between then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee and Cardinal Cláudio Hummes at the Holy See.

The Holy See’s action in Milwaukee and its inaction in Ireland are evidence of a fundamental opposition to compensating victims. This stance was articulated by Bishop Charles Scicluna during the Holy See's testimony to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in January 2014. He said that it is the obligation of the individual abuser, not the church, to compensate victims. "We promote personal responsibility. The person causing the damage has the duty to compensate," Scicluna said.  In a 2012 interview, Scicluna called civil court rulings that the Church is liable "unfair." We wish the Committee against Torture had challenged the Holy See more sharply on its resistance to redress.

Role of Civil Authorities: The Committee expressed concern that the “papal nuncio to Australia invoked diplomatic immunity in refusing to provide archival documentation to assist the New South Wales Special Commission of Inquiry into sex abuse” (para. 12).  During the hearings, Archbishop Tomasi also cited the Holy See’s unusual international status to excuse its noncompliance with the request for documents by the Commission for Investigation headed by Judge Yvonne Murphy in Dublin (see the Murphy report, chap. 2, para. 23-24).  The Committee correctly expressed concern that the Holy See’s “officials resist the principle of mandatory reporting of such allegations to civil authorities” (para. 10).   Yet in the case of Archbishop Josef Wesolowski, the Committee urged the Holy See to conduct a “prompt and impartial investigation” (para. 11), rather than urging the Holy See to extradite Weslowski to Poland, as requested by law enforcement there.  The Weslowski case casts considerable doubt on the entire question of the Holy See’s basic respect for and compliance with local and international law.

Role of the Holy See: The Committee mentioned in passing the case of Fr. Peter Kramer, without noting its significance – the gross mishandling of the Kramer case by now-Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who was confirmed as head of the CDF by Pope Francis in 2013.  (See our CRC report for more on the Kramer case.) The Committee also praised the formation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, but noted that “to date there has been no information provided to the Committee as to the Pontifical Commission’s term, investigative powers, and ability to report publicly” (para. 14).  Cardinal Müller’s poor record, and the Commission’s vague status and brief, do not inspire confidence.

What does inspire some optimism, however, is the way in which the Holy See has been compelled to show more accountability as a condition of its unusual international status.


Terence McKiernan, President and Co-Director,,, 508-479-9304
Anne Barrett Doyle, Co-Director,,, 781-439-5208 cell


Founded in 2003, maintains the world’s largest archive of documents on the catastrophic problem of clergy sexual abuse, outside the Holy See’s own archives. We conduct research on child abuse by priests and religious and on the management of those cases by bishops and their staffs, superiors of religious orders, and the Holy See.  An independent non-profit based in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA, is not a victims' advocacy group and is not affiliated with any church, reform, or victims' organization.



















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