1. Skip to content

National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Child Abuse and the Catholic Church

Child abuse in the Catholic Church may not, at first sight, be a natural target for secularists.

It becomes more evident with every month that passes that the abuse in the Church is a worldwide phenomenon on a massive scale perpetrated by those under the control of an organisation claiming to be a moral authority.

The abuse itself was bad enough, but all too often it ruined victims' lives, and those of their families. Even when the abuse came to the notice of senior clerics, they did not report it to the civil authorities – but instead often cynically moved abusers to new locations where their history was not known and where they predictably reoffended. Victims, often in awe of the Church, were silenced, and criminal authorities may have been similarly cowed. Victims were further abused by being denounced as liars if they spoke out and any claims for compensation were bitterly fought. Payouts were made on condition of silence. Although the past tense is used above, much of this still happens.

The foregoing applies largely to sexual abuse, for which billions of dollars of compensation has been paid, especially in the US, and billions of Euros in Ireland alone – but the scale of physical and psychological cruelty was even larger.

Hardly a month goes by without some revelation of wholesale abuse and often these cover ups, and even abuse itself, involves very senior clerics.

The Church has made some token gestures towards getting its house in order, for example introducing or improving child protection measures, but these seem to be half hearted and lacking in rigour. With a few honourable exceptions, for example the Archbishop of Dublin, the emphasis seems still to be — right to the very top — on fighting every case tooth and nail, on secrecy, and on keeping offenders from the secular law enforcement authorities.

Until very recently, Ireland was probably the least secular country in Europe. We argue that this complete absence of secularism was the principle factor resulting in Ireland having the highest per capita incidence of clerical child abuse yet discovered. The Church was written into the constitution; church and state were not separate, they were heavily intertwined. A report to the police of suspected abuse would sometimes be directed to the local bishop rather than the prosecuting authorities, and there was a culture of deference by the Government to the Church. The result was unchecked abuse on a massive scale for decades on end.

Many believe that the problem ultimately lies with the Vatican, which requires all information on abuse to be sent to it under strict secrecy.

The Vatican is (regarded by some as) a State. It is also HQ of the Church, so is the very antithesis of secularism, and is able to hide behind a diplomatic cloak and defy attempts by states to open secret files under Vatican control. It has own law, canon law, under which clerics can be tried for child abuse. But it is hopelessly biased in their favour and there are no effective punishments.

What are we doing?

We were one of the driving forces behind the Protest the Pope Campaign and Campaign for a Secular Europe. Both campaigns exist in part to hold the Vatican to account for failing to address the many cases of child abuse within its own organisation. The campaigns ensured that when Pope Benedict XVI was granted state visit by the UK Government he was greeted with the largest public protest he has ever faced on his foreign trips, and one of the largest protests against a pope in modern history.

We have also submitted a comprehensive briefing for the examination of Ireland by the Council of Europe Committee of Social Rights severely critical of the Irish Government's subservience to the Catholic Church over many decades on the subject of child abuse.

One objective of secularism is to prevent religions from evading the checks and balances to which others are subjected. The Vatican being a state and a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child gives us the opportunity of putting it under pressure at the UN.

We have concentrated our efforts in two UN forums. The first being the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), to which we have made a written submission asking the Council to press the UK Government to tackle the serious problems emerging over large scale child abuse and its cover-up in the Catholic Church. The NSS executive director has also made statements on the issue in that forum, in his capacity as a representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). Please see videos below.

The second UN forum is its Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), where we have given oral evidence ahead of its examination of the Holy See, and along with IHEU, have submitted written evidence on the Holy See's cover up of child abuse:

Read the NSS submission to the pre-sessional working group of the UNCRC on the Holy See

Read IHEU's submission to the pre-Sessional working group of the UNCRC on the Holy See

In July 2013, the UNCRC published its list of issues for the Holy See to address and the Holy See replied in December that year. In January 2014, the Committee published its concluding observations on the Holy See's compliance with the Convention on the rights of the child.

Read an analysis of the criticism by the UN of the Vatican over child abuse

Oral Interventions at the United Nations Human Rights Council

The following interventions were made at the United Nations Human Rights Council by NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood speaking in the capacity of representative of the International Humanist & Ethical Union, to which the NSS is affiliated.

Intervention on 22 September 2009

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Full report of intervention on 22 September 2009

Intervention on 16 March 2010

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Full report of intervention on 16 March 2010

Intervention on 15 March 2011

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Full report of intervention on15 March 2011

Related News

Carey junior’s special pleading “an insult to victims”, says NSS

Carey junior’s special pleading “an insult to victims”, says NSS

Tue, 04 Jul 2017 14:06

The son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury has said "changing attitudes" are behind criticism of his father's handling of a sexual abuse scandal.

Church of England 'colluded' with sex abuse bishop and failed victims, says report

Church of England 'colluded' with sex abuse bishop and failed victims, says report

Thu, 22 Jun 2017 15:14

The head of the Church of England, Justin Welby, has admitted that the Church "concealed" evidence of child abuse by a former bishop and failed to help his victims.

Final survivor resigns from Pope’s commission on clerical abuse of minors

Final survivor resigns from Pope’s commission on clerical abuse of minors

Fri, 03 Mar 2017 10:33

The last remaining survivor of clerical abuse on the Pontifical Commission for Protection of Minors, Marie Collins, has resigned from it "to maintain [her] integrity".

Catholic education charity faces inquiry over handling of child abuse claims

Catholic education charity faces inquiry over handling of child abuse claims

Wed, 14 Dec 2016 15:34

A statutory inquiry has been opened by the Charity Commission into the St Laurence Education Trust and Ampleforth Abbey, over the Catholic charities' handling of sexual abuse allegations.

Abuse case dismissed despite Cardinal admitting ‘mistakes’

Abuse case dismissed despite Cardinal admitting ‘mistakes’

Thu, 04 Aug 2016 09:49

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin has been told by the prosecutor that he will not face charges following allegations that he had failed to report suspicions of child abuse by a priest under his control, as is required by French law.