Is the Vatican Guilty of Torture?
History has shown that the Catholic Church can be a great force for good. But it can only live up to that promise by properly addressing the clerical sex abuse scandal.
On May 23, a United Nations committee is set to publish its verdict on the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. It’s hard to tell what the result is going be. But it’s entirely possible that the committee will rule that the Vatican is guilty of violating international laws on torture for allowing Catholic priests to commit acts of pedophilia (and by covering up their crimes).
If the U.N. Committee Against Torture rules against the Holy See, church leaders will have only themselves to blame. Both the recently canonized John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, could have chosen to tackle the abuse allegations head-on. Instead they went to considerable effort to cover up cases of abuse, in some cases moving suspect priests away from their accusers to help them evade criminal responsibility.
The current pontiff, Francis I, has vowed to resolve the scandal appointing a commission to address past cases and implement reforms that will prevent further abuses. But this new body has been slow to get off the ground. Victims have criticized the new pope for not acting more decisively. Last month, Francis finally issued a public apology to those affected by the abuse, including a personal plea for forgiveness — a gesture that went quite a bit farther than he’d previously been willing to.
The case currently under review by the U.N. torture panel has the potential to send the scandal into a whole new realm. A ruling against the Vatican could usher in a fresh wave of lawsuits and legal challenges. The reason: according to international law there is no statute of limitations on torture. If members of the panel deem the Holy See to be guilty of abetting torture, that could encourage the filing of allegations dating back, well, forever. Lawyers pressing the claims of abuse victims say that the Vatican, as a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, should assume full legal responsibility for the crimes committed by its priests. (The signs shown in the phone above were left by protesters outside an official inquiry in Australia examining allegations of abuse in the church there.)
Earlier this month, as part of the U.N. inquiry, the Vatican revealed that it has defrocked 848 priests who raped or molested children and punished another 2,572, as well as paying out $2.5 billion in settlements to victims since the scandal began. But this information comes late. The victims want greater accountability from the church and clear reforms that will prevent such things from happening again.
The whole story fills me with sadness — profound sadness, above all, for the victims, many of whom will go on living lives scarred by the traumas inflicted on them by men who were supposed to be their guides in the search for salvation.
But I also feel deep melancholy about the church itself. Though I’m not a Catholic, my moonlighting work as a historian has made me deeply aware of the ways in which the church has been able to function as a unique force for good — not only by preaching a gospel of love but also by playing a positive role on the global stage.
Consider the case of John Paul II. Critics now place much of the blame for the abuse cover-up at his feet. Many of the crimes were committed during his 26-year-papacy. His first instinct, when confronted with abuse allegations, was not to help the victims but to protect the priests — including, most appallingly, the monstrous Marcial Maciel Degollado, a serial rapist who happened to occupy a powerful position within the church. There can be no denying that John Paul II bears personal responsibility for sustaining a pernicious culture of impunity within the Vatican.
Yet there is another story of his leadership that inspires. I wrote a book that looked, among other things, at the remarkable story of John Paul’s commitment to the cause of human freedom around the world.
What we usually hear of this story is an abbreviated version that goes something like this: John Paul II was from Poland, and, like many Poles, he was a staunch anti-Communist. Once he became pope in 1978 (the first non-Italian to hold the office in 455 years), it was only natural that he would use the leverage afforded by his position to make trouble for the Russians. In this telling, his nationalism was a natural fit with his innate conservatism.
This version of the story actually misses some important nuances. First, John Paul II wasn’t just a Pole; he was also an enthusiastic European, deeply devoted to postwar values of peace, social justice, and political and economic freedom. Second, during his career as a Polish priest he lived through Nazism as well as Stalinism. This biography left him with a healthy skepticism toward the excesses of nationalism, a deep contempt for dictatorship in all of its flavors, and a deep respect for the primacy of the individual. Third, though John Paul is often described as a "doctrinal conservative," it’s a characterization that tends to elide his role in the Second Vatican Council, when then-Pope John XXIII embarked on far-reaching reform of the mission and institutions of the church. (He died not long after the council began.)
It’s this background that explains why the first major treatise of John Paul II’s papacy was Redemptor Hominis ("The Redeemer of Man"), a text that explicitly raised the defense of human rights to a central place in the life of the church. The Polish pope took this principle very seriously. During his pilgrimages to his homeland he defied the communist authorities precisely by emphasizing the inviolability of individual rights, lending immense moral authority to those who opposed a dehumanizing state. The traditions of Polish resistance to despotism were often couched in a romantic embrace of armed rebellion. In this respect, John Paul II’s patriotism was profoundly untraditional: he rigorously stressed the need for non-violence.
His support for human rights wasn’t re
stricted to Poles, or even to anti-communists. He was outspoken in his condemnation of South African apartheid. He encouraged church leaders to assist the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986 (despite the fact that President Ferdinand Marcos was a fervent convert to Catholicism). During John Paul’s trip to Chile the year after that he harshly criticized Augusto Pinochet, the country’s dictator, and called upon members of the church to support a democratic opening there. The pope’s public upbraiding of Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner is widely regarded to have contributed to the collapse of that dictatorship as well. He was also the first world leader to use the word "genocide" to describe what was happening in Rwanda in 1994. This, in short, was the John Paul II who didn’t hesitate to scold the world’s most powerful people to their faces.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be amiss to say that John Paul II’s 26-year papacy served as an important accelerant to the late-20th-century phase of the human rights revolution — and I believe that holds true even if one disagrees with many of the church’s other teachings.
Ironically, this also serves to illuminate the magnitude of his failure, and that of his successors, when it comes to confronting the human rights disaster that was happening inside the church during that period. The world’s repulsion over the sex abuse scandal reflects the general expectation that we — or at least many of us — would like to see the church live up to the high ideals that it espouses.
I’m not sure if the United Nations Committee Against Torture is the right place to address the Church’s failings. But I also find myself wondering whether the Church is really well advised to resort to legalistic wrangling in its efforts to defend itself.
Maybe it’s time for Francis to consider another course: steering the Church back towards a role as the institution that speaks with innate humility, charity, and love, and not from a position of power. We’ve been moved by the spectacle of Francis washing the feet of prisoners and comforting the disfigured. Maybe it’s time for him to invite the victims of clerical abuse to his home, where he can assure them of his own willingness to do better. Maybe it’s time for the church to demonstrate its sincere will to become the moral example the world needs.