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Newsline 12 July 2013

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Will the UN finally bring the Vatican to account for its child abuse crimes?

Will the UN finally bring the Vatican to account for its child abuse crimes?

Opinion | Thu, 11 Jul 2013

As a United Nations Committee on children's rights confronts the Vatican on its abysmal record on clerical paedophilia and criminal cover-ups, Keith Porteous Wood describes his role in bringing the Holy See to account.

Hardly a month passes without a further scandal emerging of child rape and other sexual violence by clerics acting under the auspices of the Catholic Church.

In the first week of July (2013), as well as a scandal with the Vatican Bank that resulted in its top two executives being fired, there was the release of devastating court papers on the RC Diocese of Milwaukee in which countless boys in a Catholic school for the deaf were abused, presumably chosen because of their reduced capacity to communicate.

An attorney for some of the victims alleges that there were more than 8,000 cases of abuse by more than 100 staff. A harrowing film Mea Maxima Culpa has been made about this.

The diocese has declared itself bankrupt, limiting the funds available to victims of abuse.

The Vatican, under its diplomatic nom de plume The Holy See, is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which incurs a long list of strict obligations.

One of these is five-yearly reporting of the challenges encountered in conforming to the Convention. But the Vatican only filed its report, due in 1997, in 2011.

I complained about the failure to file — under the kind aegis of IHEU — on the floor of the UN Human Rights Council in 2009, 2010 and 2011 (shortly before the eventual submission of the report, which I believe my intervention prompted).

The Committee on the Rights of the Child examined the report and invited interested parties to make submissions, which we did, commenting on the many ways in which the Vatican fell short of its Convention obligations.

On the basis of these submissions, the Committee invited a small number of witnesses to testify at a private session in Geneva. Two victims' organisations were represented: the largest one called SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and the Survivors' Voice Europe (with NSS member Sue Cox), and myself representing Geoffrey Robertson QC (author of The Case of the Pope – essential reading), IHEU as well as the National Secular Society.

With the benefit of the written and oral evidence, the Committee, for the first time, confronted the issue head-on with the Vatican.

In their list of issues raised with the Vatican the Committee asked: "In the light of the recognition by the Holy See of sexual violence against children committed by members of the clergy, brothers and nuns in numerous countries around the world, and given the scale of the abuses" in respect of every case of abuse "committed by members of the clergy, brothers and nuns" (in summary):

(a) Whether those accused were removed or not from contact with children

(b) Whether reporting to secular authorities was mandatory

(c) Whether children were supported when making accusations and whether they were silenced

(d) What was the outcome in canon law trials and whether there was co-operation with authorities in the countries concerned

(e) What assistance was given to victims

(f) What preventative measures are in place

Questions were also asked about the Magdalene Laundries run by nuns in Ireland until their closure in 1996, where inmates (some of whom were girls) were used as forced labour.

In my opinion, having seen the evidence, none of these questions can honestly be answered in a way that will satisfy the Committee.

And that presents the new Pope with a dilemma. His predecessors have flouted the Convention shamelessly while at the same time exploiting the authority that being a signatory brings to seek to force Catholic dogma on other countries, for example so-called "pro-life" positions.

Pope Francis has already said that he will "act decisively" over clerical paedophiles, but doing so will take more than the slick PR we have seen so far; it is a Herculean task. More challenging even than tackling the huge scale and the worldwide spread of this abuse could be making the necessary complete change to the Vatican culture of all his predecessors. And his answers to these questions, and more importantly his actions, will reveal whether he has the willingness and the clout to root out the corruption.

I'm convinced that he was appointed to do just this, and that his predecessor was fired because of his unwillingness to even try. The evidence of Benedict's complicity in cover-ups is clear and continues to mount up, and that was another reason he had to go.

The world and regulatory authorities are running out of patience with the Vatican's harbouring of criminality and criminals, whether over money-laundering or child rape.

Francis's biggest challenge, and his papacy, will be judged on his success in these areas.

Our actions have generated worldwide publicity for this issue.

I am well aware that most abuse occurs outside institutions, but that is not a reason to ignore it. Indeed religious institutions are prone to abuse because of the power wielded by those in authority and in some cases their inevitable pent up sexual frustration. We accept that neither Catholic nor Christian institutions have a monopoly on this, and indeed a Jewish issue has just hit the news. We also recognise that there has been a considerable amount of physical or psychological violence in such institutions which has scarred victims.

Christian B&B owners who refused gay couple a room lose their appeal

Christian B&B owners who refused gay couple a room lose their appeal

News | Tue, 09 Jul 2013

The Christian owner of a bed and breakfast who was found guilty of discrimination after she refused a double room to a gay couple has lost her latest appeal.

Our secular society is wiser than the Church

Our secular society is wiser than the Church

Opinion | Wed, 10 Jul 2013

"There was noticeable hostility to the view of the Churches," the Archbishop of Canterbury told the General Synod on Friday. He was referring to the debate in the House of Lords on same-sex marriage. He added that there had been an "overwhelming change of cultural hinterland" in social attitudes.

He's right. Gay marriage will become established and there will come a time when few of its current opponents (including Archbishop Welby) will be exercised by the issue. The same was true of civil partnerships and of decriminalising homosexuality. It was also true of legislation in 1882 to enable married women to own property independently — a reform that the purported defenders of marriage likewise denounced as contrary to the natural order.

Most voters see this. The Church predominantly can't. Why does it so reliably lag social attitudes? Consider Archbishop Welby's predecessors. William Temple was influential in debates over the post-war welfare state. But his predecessor, Cosmo Lang, supported the disastrous foreign policies of Neville Chamberlain. Michael Ramsey forcefully opposed racism. But his predecessor, Geoffrey Fisher, foolishly remarked — in Africa — that "all men are not equal in the sight of God though they are equal in the love of God". Rowan Williams bizarrely declared that adoption of Sharia in some parts of Britain was unavoidable.

The Church eventually acclimatises itself to intellectual discoveries, such as Darwinism, or the expansion of liberty, such as opening civic and military office to non-Anglicans in the 19th century. There are rare scholars who have drawn wisdom from theological reflection, such as the great Protestant ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. But modern secular culture is wiser than the Church. Science and liberalism are critical, whereas religion aims to uncover the true meaning of sacred texts and revelations.

Always looking backward, the Church is late in catching up.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for The Times. This article is reproduced with the author's permission. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Public perceptions and reality - have we got it wrong?

Public perceptions and reality - have we got it wrong?

Opinion | Thu, 11 Jul 2013

An Ipsos-Mori poll for the Royal Statistical Society tried to measure what people's perception of issues were as opposed to the reality (according to the official figures).

On religion, the survey found that people vastly overestimated the number of Muslims living in Britain at 24%. According to the census, the actual number is nearer 5%.

As far as Christians are concerned, people thought that 34% of the population was Christian, whereas the census showed the number at 59%.

There was a vast disparity between public perceptions and reality in other issues. When asked how many girls under 16 had become pregnant in the past year, people guessed at 15%. In reality it is more like 0.6%.

But let's not forget that the accuracy of the census figures on religion have been questioned many times, so we shouldn't take anything for granted.

Other large-scale polls find the number of Christians to be much nearer the 34% that people estimated, and the number of Muslims has been underestimated by the census too.

And, anyway, what does being a 'Christian' mean? A lot of people who haven't been near a church for decades and don't intend to go near one, still regard themselves as 'Christian'. And that includes people who say they're Christian and then say they don't believe in God or the resurrection or the virgin birth or miracles or anything else that would genuinely qualify them as anything but cultural Christians.

Channel 4’s call to prayer during Ramadan is more of the same old, same old

Channel 4’s call to prayer during Ramadan is more of the same old, same old

Opinion | Tue, 09 Jul 2013

Channel 4 is airing the Muslim call to prayer during Ramadan every morning and also broadcasting a series of programmes about Ramadan. It says it is doing so as a deliberate act of "provocation" to challenge viewers who associate Islam with terrorism and extremism.

Far from being provocative, however, it is just more of the same old, same old.

Whilst people have innumerable characteristics that define them, Channel 4 is again promoting a portrayal of Muslims as one dimensional religious beings that always fasts and like to hear the call to prayers.

What about all the Muslims (and ex-Muslims) who can't stand to hear the call to prayers? Or who don't fast during Ramadan? There is a movement of eating during Ramadan as a way of challenging laws that make it an offence to eat in public. Here's one example of people being arrested for "inciting public eating during Ramadan" but of course none of these will be shown on Channel 4.

Rather than being provocative, Channel 4 is feeding into the narrative that all Muslims are religious and conservative and fast during Ramadan. Something Islamists insist upon thereby justifying their attacks on those who refuse to fast or transgress their vile norms.

Religion is meant to be a private matter, lived in a myriad of ways. Often religion is not even an integral part of many people's lives but of course that's irrelevant for Channel 4.

As an aside, the call to prayers makes the hairs on my neck stand up. It has always been background noise during executions and attacks on the public in Iran.

Channel 4: want to do something really provocative? Show "Muslims" and ex-Muslims living everyday lives, eating, laughing, loving, opposing Sharia, leaving Islam, defending secularism and women's equality or gay rights and living without religion. Show them as 21st century human beings and citizens with countless characteristics like everyone else. Not just as Muslims and a certain type of Muslim at that.

But of course that is too much to ask…

As for me I will be eating extra this month.

Maryam Namazie is an honorary associate of the National Secular Society and leader of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and the One Law for All campaign, she won the first NSS Secularist of the Year Prize in 2005. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Catalonia plans to ban the burka

Catalonia plans to ban the burka

News | Tue, 09 Jul 2013

The Catalan Government has announced that it will control the wearing of burkas and other face-coverings such as helmets and masks in public spaces "for reasons of public safety".

NSS Speaks Out

The Times picked up our Thought for the Day story (last week's Newsline) and included a quote from Terry Sanderson (subscription) and was subsequently picked up by The Daily Telegraph

Keith Porteous Wood made two appearances on the BBC1 Television's Breakfast programme, talking about religious education in schools.

Terry Sanderson was on Three Counties Radio talking about Channel 4's "Call to Prayer" stunt.

The NSS was quoted in the story about the UN calling the Vatican to account over child abuse in The Guardian Daily Telegraph International Business Times BBC, Irish Independent Irish Times, Canadian Globe and Mail, News24, Jakarta Globe and many foreign language newspapers.

The story was also picked up by Reuters.

As a direct result of being alerted by the NSS this story was picked up even more widely around the world, albeit the NSS was not mentioned by name, for example by Agence France Press (the largest news agency in the world), Huffington Post and the BBC World Service.

Keith Porteous Wood was talking on the same topic on Sky News and Voice of Russia radio.

The NSS figured strongly in a Washington Post story about the Government handing over thousands of community schools to the Church of England.

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