Words and actions collide in Rome

Does Rome‘get it’ on child protection?

Lambasted. Grilled. Confronted. A barrage of questions. Blistering criticism.

Media headlines last week worked hard to offer an edge to the appearance before the United Nations of Church representatives who travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to provide an update on the Holy See’s current adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Rome ratified in 1990. 

For the waiting media, the Holy See was the only act in town for the January 16 convening of the UN committee, despite that fact that six sovereign territories were scheduled to offer convention updates that day. For the record, those others sending representatives to Geneva were Russia, Germany, Portugal, Congo and Yemen.

But who (in the secular media) cared for the details of such sideline acts as Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, head of the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the UN in Geneva and Bishop Charles Scicluna, former promoter of justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, placed themselves before the microphones to face questions?


Thus began a session that Bishop Scicluna would later describe as “gruelling” in terms of length of time and the “dialogue” with the committee which apparently remained fixed on the image of Rome co-ordinating the shifting and shielding of errant priests in dioceses around the world, despite Archbishop Tomasi’s stress on the distinction between the Vatican and local jurisdictions worldwide in which the Church operates.

“Priests are not functionaries of the Vatican,” he told the committee. “Priests are citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country.”

Nevertheless, Bishop Scicluna was at pains to inform the committee that “the Holy See ‘gets it’, that as a sovereign state that the Holy See is implementing the convention and that the Holy See, as the central organ of the Catholic Church, is promoting the values of the convention and that canon law, as an expression of the jurisdiction of the Holy See, is also constantly being revised”.


What is clear from the words of both prelates, and indeed from a message released by the Vatican press office ahead of the Geneva gathering, is that Rome clearly anticipated an inevitable misreading of the Holy See’s responsibilities, as a sovereign subject, towards the activities of priests and religious in other jurisdictions. In unveiling that press office message, a three-page document detailing Rome’s “initiatives and directives” in direct response to abuse scandals, spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi pointed out too that “it is not rare to find that the questions posed – above all where they refer to the sexual abuse of minors – seem to presuppose that bishops or religious superiors act as representatives or delegates of the Pope – [which is] utterly without foundation”.


Rome, no doubt, also anticipated the anger of victims groups who vocally criticised this line of defence. Though there was no official statement or press release by way of answer to this, Pope Francis directly addressed all issues around abuse during his homily at a January 16 Mass in which he decried the “shame of the Church” and described as “right” and “how it must be done” that money that has been expended in compensating victims. Errant priests, he stressed “did not have a relationship with God! They had a position in the Church, a position of power, of comfort even. But the Word of God, no!”

Beyond a desire to find and expose a conspiracy on abuse travelling to the very top in the Church, there is little reason to doubt the commitment of Pope Francis and others to deal effectively with both the scandal of clerical sexual abuse and the consequent damage to the Church’s credibility (“a wound that hurts the community of faith,” Archbishop Tomasi said). Bishop Scicluna has previously been described as the ‘scourge of paedophiles’ in his efforts to excise the rot represented by abusive clerics, while the Pope established, in December, a commission specifically charged with implementing safeguarding guidelines for Vatican City State in adherence to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (This is just one result of the work of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals, his so-called C-8 charged with major curial reforms.)

For all that, other events last week coming simultaneously to Geneva must leave observers wondering as to the Church’s continued ability to scupper its own message.

Awkwardly, the prelates’ appearance in Geneva coincided with renewed coverage of the case of Archbishop Josef Wesolowski, who, as Apostolic Nuncio to the Dominican Republic, has become embroiled in an abuse scandal there involving teenage rent boys. As reported in last week’s The Irish Catholic, the archbishop now faces two Vatican tribunals in relation to the issue, but at the same time, the Vatican has refused to allow for his extradition to face the charges within the local jurisdiction, and, further, has cited diplomatic immunity in relation to the matter. Questioned on this by the UN committee, Archbishop Tomasi assured that the archbishop’s case would be dealt with the “severity it deserves”. While not to blame for the timing of the Wesolowski case, in the eyes of the world Rome hardly helped its own argument for the need for local jurisdictions to prosecute abuse cases involving clerics when it will not force Archbishop Josef Wesolowski to face justice in the Dominican Republic while at the same time assuring that it will take care of matters occurring in that jurisdiction.


Meanwhile, as the Pope made his January 16 comments in Rome, The New York Times was quick to point out that, after his celebration of Mass, Pope Francis held a private audience with Cardinal Roger Mahony, the disgraced former Archbishop of Los Angeles who was revealed to have actively shielded priests from criminal investigations into alleged sex crimes.

Leaked document

Then, on January 17, came word of a leaked Vatican document, apparently compiled for the prelates ahead of their Geneva appearance revealing that 384 priests had been laicised by Rome in the two years 2011 to 2012. What could (perhaps even should) have been the centre of the Geneva story was not referred to during that UN meeting, and worse yet, was at first denied by Rome before a Vatican statement attempted to place the number into a context. By then, unfortunately, the denial had become ‘the story’, while survivor groups dismissed the leak as a staged exercise to soften the impact of Geneva.

It is, of course, the Pope’s right to meet his priests and prelates when he wishes, and Rome’s prerogative to maintain, hold or release its facts and figures as it sees fit. But what did last week’s scheduling and the handling of those figures communicate to those listening to Rome’s insistence that it “gets it” on abuse?