The UN’s flawed report on the Vatican

The Church is ill-served by this lack of understanding

During the last few weeks the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry started its public hearings in Northern Ireland, the UN Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) produced an ill-informed, outdated, critical report on the Holy See, (which was comprehensively reported in this newspaper last week), and questions have been asked about the reduced funding and the ongoing work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church.

All these issues bring into focus two questions: the first is how we, as a Church, provide – ethically and in accordance with the Gospels – a response to the terrible historic abuse problem, and sustain our current arrangements for the protection of children. The second relates to how we communicate with the world and with organisations such as the Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


Our Church has worked hard to establish safeguarding procedures across the world. Some countries are better than others. There is an ongoing need for watchfulness, for caution, for guarding against complacency. In some countries there is a lot of work still to be done – by the Church and by national governments. Here in Ireland we need to ensure that our National Board for Safeguarding is working properly, that standards are being applied with consistency, that there is no deletion of inconvenient findings, no minimising of past failings, that we care for the survivors of wrongdoing. As a Church called to holiness, we are called to truth, and we must never, ever, fail to be truthful about what has happened.

As a Church we are not good at communication. Pope Francis said recently that “in today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects”. We have significant evidence of that. The question is could we do more to reduce that risk of misreporting about the Church?

The UN committee report on the Holy See, for example, demonstrates a profound lack of understanding about what the Church is, and how it operates. The committee was told that the Holy See has legal jurisdiction only over those who live and work in the Vatican City State, that it has only canonical and spiritual jurisdiction over Catholics and their priests and bishops and religious around the world, all of whom are subject to the laws and jurisdiction of their own states. They did not seem to understand this.

How did it happen that the committee understood so little of the state upon which it was reporting? What does it say of the way in which the committee operates? What do we know about the way the committee works and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (the UNCRC)?

The UNCRC comprises some 40 children’s rights including the right to life, to live with their parents, to healthcare and education, to respect, to play, to be protected from sexual exploitation and abuse.

The committee has 18 members. They meet for eleven weeks in the year to consider country compliance with the convention. They do this in two chambers of nine members each. They conduct their examination, normally of six signatory states, over a period of approximately two weeks.

Between January 13 and 31, the committee examined the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, the Holy See, Portugal, the Russian Federation and Germany.

What happens is that each state has to submit a report to the committee.

The committee then meets at a pre-sessional working group, in private, with invited UN agencies and bodies, NGOs, and other competent bodies such as National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and youth organisations, which have submitted additional information to the committee. The committee “systematically and strongly” encourages NGOs and NHRIs to submit evidence to it. There is no published record of this meeting and no members of the public are allowed to attend.

In addition to this NGOs, NHRIs and other competent bodies may request a private meeting with the committee.

There is no list provided by the committee of those from whom it has taken evidence.

There is nothing to indicate that any evidence to explain the situation in the Catholic Church was provided by any organisation other than the Holy See and secular societies and survivors of sexual abuse organisations.


Given the focus on Ireland, it would have been very helpful had the bishops informed the National Board for Safeguarding Children and other interested and informed organisations so that they could give evidence, not to create positive spin, but rather to provide facts which might have enabled the committee to produce a more accurate and UNCRC-based report. Catholic organisations in other countries could also have provided relevant information.

After that meeting a “list of issues” is drawn up to give the government (in this case the Holy See) a preliminary indication of the issues which the committee considers to be priorities for discussion, asking them to respond to the issues in writing. The list of issues for the Holy See included the following:

                •               Indicate whether an investigation has been conducted by the Holy See into the complaints of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and of subjection to forced labour of girls held in Magdalene Laundries run by Catholic nuns in Ireland until 1996.

                •               Provide data, disaggregated by age, sex, ethnic origin and socioeconomic status, on cases of violence against children within the family for the period 2010-2012 reported to institutions of the Holy See, and action taken to protect children and prevent further violence.

                •               In view of the widespread allegations of corporal punishment inflicted on children in Catholic institutions, as revealed notably by the Ryan Commission in Ireland, please explain the measures taken by the Holy See to impartially investigate those allegations and hold those responsible accountable.

The formal meeting with the committee, usually takes place between three and four months after the working group. In the case of the Holy See the meeting took place on January 16.

The committee devotes one day (two meetings of three hours each) to its public examination of state parties’ reports (these are public meetings at which the government, and the committee speak).

The six hours of discussion about the Holy See was on January 16. In addition, the committee generally devotes between two and three hours towards the end of the session, in private, to its discussion of each report. That means, for example, that the Holy See was considered for a total of nine hours – not long to deal with a range of issues of enormous complexity, and an organisation with some 1.2 billion members across at least 194 countries, especially when one factors in the translation issues which invariably impact adversely on the efficiency of multi-language meetings.

Flawed and inaccurate reports emanating from such very limited hearings can cause great damage.

The United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) will be included in the next session in a few months. Is the Church prepared to respond if necessary?

No recognition

The committee clearly uses a template for these reports. Each one follows the same format and contains in many cases very similar provisions. This is normal. However, in the case of the report on the Holy See there are occasions when the report goes way beyond the terms of the UNCRC and makes demands with which the Holy See would quite simply be unable to comply. In some cases the Church has already established the mechanisms the committee seeks yet there is no recognition of this.

For example, “the committee recommends that the Holy See establish an independent mechanism for monitoring children’s rights, with clear mandates to receive and investigate children’s complaints in a child-sensitive manner and with due respect to the privacy and protection of victims, and ensure that this mechanism is made accessible to all children attending or involved in schools, services and institutions provided by the Catholic Church. Given the special nature of the Holy See, guidelines on the relationship and collaboration between this mechanism and national law enforcement authorities should also be established and widely disseminated.”

There is no recognition of the various mechanisms for responding to complaints which have been established by the Church in various countries, each with their national arrangements for cooperation with national authorities.

How can the Church get its message heard in such a situation? Much has been achieved. Much remains to be done. We need, because we are signatories to so many of these international conventions, to create a much more coherent and effective way of responding on occasions such as the periodic country review which culminated in the report on the Holy See on January 31 last.