Critic says UN risks credibility with Catholic torture charges
Insinuations at a U.N. committee hearing that Catholic teaching against abortion may violate an international anti-torture convention has raised questions about the partiality of the body.
“It is outrageous that the U.N. Committee against Torture would challenge the Catholic Church's religious commitment to the sanctity of life at every stage,” Ashley McGuire, an advisory board member for Catholic Voices USA, said May 6.
The U.N. Committee on the Convention against Torture conducted a hearing with a Holy See delegation in Geneva May 5-6.
Each of the 155 states which are parties to the convention – including the U.S. – are obliged to report to the U.N. committee every four years to discuss its implementation.
The committee pressed the Holy See delegation on sex abuse and abortion. Committee vice-chair Felice Gaer said the committee has found that criminalizing abortion in all circumstances can violate the convention of torture.
She asked the delegation to respond to criticisms that its position against abortion requires pregnant nine-year-olds to give birth, The Guardian reports.
McGuire said that Gaer’s approach in the hearings “has sent a strong signal that she considers a pro-life position to be a pro-torture position.”
“Given that most of the world’s religions hold similar views on abortion, were the committee to adopt such a twisted official position it would be nothing more than a direct attack on religious freedom and undermine the very credibility of the committee and its mission.”
McGuire also questioned the partiality of the committee chair Claudio Grossman, citing a report from the Atlanta-based Solidarity Center for Law and Justice which noted Grossman’s past work in support of a conference that examined strategies for advancing “women’s reproductive rights,” a phrase which often includes abortion.
Grossman also gave financial and supervisory support to a leading advocate of legal recognition of many personal relationships other than traditional marriage.
The report questioned whether this constituted a conflict of interest – an assessment with which McGuire agreed.
“His partiality in evaluating the Holy See while concurrently attacking the religious views of the Catholic Church is seriously questionable,” she stated.
She suggested that both Gaer and Grossman might be in violation of committee rules.
“The obvious conflict that the chair and vice chair maintain not only impact the credibility and reputation of the full committee but they may well create a conflict of interest and arguably fall within the U.N. Committee’s own rules for recusal.”
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, head of the Holy See’s Permanent Observer mission to the United Nations in Geneva, told the committee May 5 that states are obligated to protect and prosecute persons in their jurisdictions and are responsible for justice regarding “crimes and abuses committed by persons under their jurisdiction.”
The delegation has repeatedly emphasized that the Holy See signed the convention with the understanding that it applies to the territory of the Vatican City State, not the entire Catholic Church.
“Obviously, some people don’t agree with this statement because they feel that the authority of the Holy See extends to the institutions and the persons of the Catholic Church at large,” Archbishop Tomasi told Vatican Radio May 5.
“But from a juridical point of view, this is not accurate and there is an important distinction to be kept in mind between a juridical responsibility and a moral, spiritual, pastoral responsibility.”
He said some committee questions assumed that the Holy See is “directly responsible” for every priest and Church employee in the world, “which of course is not the case.”
Archbishop Tomasi said Grossman “has tried to be very fair” in pointing out the Church’s measures to combat abuse.
“And at the same time, he also posed some questions that need to be answered,” the archbishop said.
McGuire added that the Catholic Church has implemented “important reforms” against abuse in the past decade.
Other U.N. committees have been used to examine the Catholic Church’s handling of abuse, and have become platforms to advocate against Catholic teaching.
A February report from the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child used a discussion of the children’s rights convention to claim that the Vatican had “systematically” adopted policies allowing priests to rape and molest children. The committee also used the report to condemn Catholic teaching on homosexuality, contraception, and abortion, while calling for changes in Catholic doctrine.
On May 2, Fr. Federico Lombardi, head of the Holy See press office, praised the principles of the anti-torture convention while also warning against NGO pressure groups with a “strong ideological character and orientation” that are attempting to influence both the U.N. committee and public opinion.
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal group representing the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, has tried to depict the committee hearing as an effort to address sex abuse in the Catholic Church.
Katherine Gallagher, a senior staff attorney at the center, has said that treating sex abuse as torture would allow more legal action for alleged victims as there is no statute of limitations on torture in U.S. law.
Ed Mechmann, director of the New York archdiocese’s Safe Environment Program, objected that although sex abuse of minors is evil, it is “clearly” not torture as defined in the United Nations convention.
The convention defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
“Sexual abuse of minors is many, many things — all of them evil — but it is clearly not that,” Mechmann stated.
He said on a May 5 blog entry that the Center for Constitutional Rights has been “involved deeply in harassing the Holy See in front of international tribunals,” including filing a dismissed complaint with the International Criminal Court to charge the Holy See with crimes against humanity.