U.N. board urges Vatican to punish bishops who mishandle abuse claims

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The U.N. Committee Against Torture urged the Vatican to impose "meaningful sanctions" on any church authority who fails to follow church law in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse and asked that church officials worldwide be required to report abuse allegations to local police.

The committee's recommendations were issued Friday as a follow-up to a May 5-6 session at which Vatican representatives were questioned about the Holy See's report on its adherence to the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment.

In a statement Friday, the Vatican said it would "give serious consideration" to the committee's recommendations, although it said the committee mistakenly gave "the impression that all the priests serving around the world are directly, legally tied to the Vatican as a sovereign."

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Vatican representative to U.N. agencies in Geneva, had tried to explain to the committee that the Holy See had direct juridical control only over Vatican City State, its citizens and employees, but not over all bishops and priests around the world. "It is one thing to be able to exercise jurisdiction and another to encourage a certain type of activity" or adoption of certain policies in Catholic communities around the globe, he had said.

"States bear international responsibility for the acts and omissions of their officials and others acting in an official capacity or acting on behalf of the state," the committee insisted in its document Friday.

Responding to the recommendations, the Vatican also questioned the committee's "implicit fundamental assumption" that "any sexual abuse is equivalent to, or a form of, torture as defined" in the international convention, known as CAT. While affirming "the Holy See condemns sex abuse as a serious crime and a grave violation of human dignity," the Vatican statement said it cannot be equated to state-sponsored torture under the terms of the treaty.

During the early May session, two committee members had expressed opinions that an absolute ban on abortion could constitute cruel or inhuman treatment. Tomasi had responded that the Catholic church considers "the right to life to be non-negotiable" and that it "condemns torture, including for those who are tortured and killed before they are born."

The committee's concluding observations did not repeat concerns about Catholic opposition to abortion, which the Vatican said safeguards "the fundamental human right of freedom of religion and opinion and the protection and promotion of human life."

The Committee Against Torture applauded the Holy See for signing the anti-torture treaty and for updating Vatican City State legislation to reflect commitments made by signing the treaty. It also praised Pope Francis for establishing the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and for "acknowledging the damage done by the sexual abuse of children by some priests."

At the same time, the committee expressed concerns about reports that bishops and other officials are not always required to report to police allegations of sexual abuse made against clergy or church employees. While Vatican officials have strongly recommended such reporting, it is obligatory only when local civil law requires it.

The Vatican's next report to the committee is due in May 2018. The committee asked that it include figures about how many of the allegations made against priests each year are reported to local authorities; it also asked for an update on the status of Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, the former nuncio to the Dominican Republic. The Vatican removed the archbishop from his position in August after he was accused of paying for sex with boys in the Caribbean country. Tomasi told the committee the case is the subject of a canonical investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as well as a criminal investigation by the Vatican police and court.

The committee also urged the Vatican to "establish an independent complaints mechanism" to work with alleged victims and with civil authorities in investigating allegations and it asked that the Vatican's next report include more information about the responsibilities and role of the pontifical commission, which was just established in December. In addition, it asked for worldwide statistics on the compensation paid to victims of abuse.

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