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United Nations Asked to Intervene in Sexual Abuse of Children by Catholic Clergy, to Hold Vatican Accountable for Violating Convention on the Rights of the Child

May 8, 2002

Campaign launched by abuse survivors, legal experts and Catholic groups lobbying UN to demand plan from Vatican to end future abuse and ensure due process for victims.

New York, NY–The first campaign calling for the United Nations to intervene and help end the systemic sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy was launched today in New York.  On the opening day of the UN’s Special Session of the General Assembly on Children, a coalition of abuse survivors, legal experts, and progressive Catholic groups announced they are lobbying the UN to hold the Holy See—the government of Vatican City and the Roman Catholic church—accountable for the international cover-up of child sexual abuse by high-ranking church officials.

Citing a litany of clergy sexual abuse of children and adolescents throughout Europe, Latin America, and the US, the groups accused the Holy See of violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors the Convention, was called on specifically to: 1) demand the Holy See issue a full report on the magnitude of the abuse; 2) demand concrete plans from the Holy See to ensure future abuse does not occur; and, 3) recommend changes to the Holy See’s legal system to provide protection and due process for abuse victims.  The campaign also called on the Holy See to make a public apology during the Special Session and reinstate its contribution to UNICEF.

“We come to the UN because there is no sign that Catholic bishops or the institutional church are prepared to deal with this problem in a definitive way that will end pedophilia in the church,” stated Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC), an organizer of the campaign.  “The only thing that seems to work with the church is external pressure from civil authorities.  The UN has the ability to address this global crisis and we expect it to do so.”

The Holy See, a Permanent Observer at the UN, was among the first to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990.  However, a CFFC report released today, Clergy Sexual Abuse:  Out of the Shadows, analyzes the law, policy and practices of the Holy See and shows that it is in violation of the principles and standards of the Convention regarding basic health and welfare of children (article 27), special protection measures (articles 34, 36, 37, 39), and measures of implementation (articles 4, 44).  The report draws on documented cases of abuse and deliberate cover-ups by church officials.”People are angry at priests who engaged in the sexual abuse but we are enraged at cardinals and bishops who had the power to stop it,” said Joseph E. Gallagher, Jr., co-founder of the Coalition of Concerned Catholics in Boston, explaining why the campaign came to the UN. “Instead of stopping the abuse, cardinals and bishops allowed it to continue, aided and abetted it, and showed compassion for the perpetrators that they never showed for the victims.  I was a parishioner of Father Geoghan who assaulted and raped 30 children in our parish.  My children came into close contact with him, but we knew nothing of what had occurred.  Only later, when we understood the complicity of the church leaders did we realize we had to act.”

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has agreed to meet with organizers of the campaign.  As a treaty-monitoring body, the Committee can make recommendations to a state and present those recommendations to the General Assembly.  The Committee has addressed such issues as the sexual exploitation of children and the recruitment of children as soldiers in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The evidence is clear that abusive priests hurt children all across the world and to keep kids safe will require the efforts of many parties.  International attention is especially important to prevent the transfer and recycling of priests across national boundaries that we have seen and continue to see every day,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (S.N.A.P.).

Organizers of the campaign stated the Holy See should be accountable to the UN in the same way as other states are accountable and called on the Holy See to:

  • Apologize to the world for the tragic child sexual abuse by its priests and seek forgiveness for its lack of action to end this abuse;
  • Pay reparations to the world’s children by reinstating its contribution to UNICEF;
  • Reveal to the United Nations what measures it has taken to eliminate the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic clergy, and what measures it proposes to take to secure justice for these children;
  • Commit to cooperating with local civil authorities by providing evidence and assisting with the prosecution of Catholic church officials involved in rape and other sexual abuse of children and adolescents; and
  • Create accessible fora for children and adolescents to vindicate and defend their rights as stated in Can. 221 §1 of the Code of Canon Law.

As a specialized UN agency responsible for implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF was called on to:

  • Participate in consideration of the Holy See’s next report to the Committee;
  • Provide expert advice on the Holy See’s implementation of the Convention in regards to sexual abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents by Catholic priests;
  • Provide technical advice and assistance to the Holy See on how to address sexual abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents;
  • Follow-up on the Holy See’s 2000 report to UNICEF, National Programme Review of the Holy See on the Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the World Declaration and Plan of Action of the World Summit for Children;
  • Request information from the Holy See as to measures they are taking to address the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents by Catholic priests.

The global nature of the clergy sexual abuse crisis was described by other members of the campaign, including Roberto J. Blancarte, Ph.D., a sociologist of religion and former counselor in the Mexican Embassy to the Holy See, who spoke of how in Mexico the church

has been accused of covering up cases of sexual abuse of children and even paying money to silence the victims.  Simon W. Kennedy, an attorney who has tried cases of Catholic clergy sexual abuse in Ireland, spoke of how the Papal Nuncio in Ireland invoked diplomatic immunity to avoid civil prosecution, saying, “I just find it difficult to believe that an emissary of an associate member would invoke an immunity provision in order to contest its right not to explain itself over its failure to act in accordance with all of the charters (let alone its beliefs) to which it encourages other to aspire, promote and promulgate.”

Henk Baars, president of 8th of May Movement in The Netherlands, made the case that open and thorough handling of clergy sexual abuse cases can make a difference, as it has in his country.  He stated, “In the Netherlands, in spite of the increasing reactive climate on the side of the bishops, a situation that diminishes much of the problems has been created, thanks solely to the continuing input of lay people.”

The campaign continues through the Special Session on Children (May 8-10) and then moves to Geneva for the May 20 meeting of the Committee on the Rights of the Child.  A petition statement is being circulated worldwide by the participating organizations and online at