NSS Director slams Vatican failures over child abuse at UN Human Rights Council

The NSS's Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood make a forthright attack on the Catholic Church’s deplorable record on child abuse at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday 15 March 2011.

Keith was acting in the capacity of international representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which does a great deal of excellent work at the UN on a wide variety of areas, for example on children's and women's rights and freedom of expression.

Keith pointed out to the plenary session of the Council that Geoffrey Robertson QC’s book The Case of the Pope alleged that the Church had broken six Articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, thus confirming the accusations that Keith had previously made at the UN – in September 2009 and March 2010.

Keith called attention to the fact that when he made similar accusations at the Council on 22 September 2009, the Papal Nuncio did not deny them, but had claimed that a report, then twelve years overdue, was being “finalised as we speak”. It still remains to be filed. Among other “justifications”, the nuncio informed the Council that as many as 5% of Catholic clergy could be involved. (If true, that would equate to approximately 20,000 clergy involved in child abuse). He added that offenders can be dismissed under Canon Law.

Keith reported some key points from Robertson's book, including his withering analysis of why the abuse continued unabated. Keith repeated Robertson’s conviction that “the scourge of child abuse within the Church itself had for many years gone unpunished as a result of the procedural deficiencies of Canon Law, the selfish desire to protect the Church from scandal by harbouring and trafficking paedophile priests, and the negligent supervision of bishops by the Holy See through its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith office, headed for the previous two decades by Cardinal Ratzinger.”

Keith said he half expected to be called to order during his speech, or at least have the representative of the Holy See or some compliant Catholic country make an objection. He thought the most likely triggers were him naming Cardinal Ratzinger and repeating Robertson’s conclusion: “The Holy See’s grave and extensive breaches of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its contempt for its reporting obligations over the past thirteen years, should ... justify its expulsion.”

Fortunately, he was not interrupted and the chair later said in response to a member state’s objection to another NGOs intervention that, in effect, sometimes it was only the NGOs who were prepared to confront member states with uncomfortable material.

For good measure, Keith drew attention to two “smoking gun” letters which have recently come to light, written by the senior members of the Church’s hierarchy. One was from Rome to the Bishop of Tucson and the other was from the Papal Nuncio to the bishops of Ireland. One, for example, contains the damning phrase “under no condition whatever ought the [personnel] files be surrendered to any lawyer or judge whatsoever”. Their crucial significance is that they point the finger directly at the Vatican as the source of instructions to cover up abuse by priests. This is in stark contrast to the Vatican's standard rebuttal in which they seek to blame local bishops.

The UN itself did not escape unscathed from Keith's intervention. He drew the Council's attention to another target of Robertson's criticism: “It is a serious reflection on the competence and resolve of the ‘eighteen experts of high moral standing’ who have been elected to the Committee on the Rights of the Child that they have done and said nothing about the Vatican’s thirteen-year failure to deliver a report, during the period when widespread child abuse by its priests has been extensively publicized.”

Keith concluded by calling once more upon the Human Rights Council and the Committee on the Rights of the Child to hold the Holy See to account for:

  • its breach of its obligations under the CRC;
  • its disregard for its duty of care to the abused children;
  • its systematic cover-up of thousands of cases of abuse; and
  • its failure to adequately control those put in positions of trust with children.

Read a full transcript of the speech

Read the written statement

Read the links within the statement to key media reports

While in Geneva, Keith participated in other key meetings and took up an invitation to visit the UN High Commission at the Palais Wilson to meet officials to discuss these matters further. We pay particular tribute to the work at the UNHRC of Roy Brown and Jack Jeffery of IHEU – both, as it happens, also NSS life members.

Also at the Human Rights Council this week, IHEU delivered another stinging rebuke on the topic of “Defamation of Religion”. Read the story in full

See also: Making the church face up to the truth of child abuse