The Welfare of Children

In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis proclaims that the church must be a place “where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” In a world troubled by violence, the church, of all places, must serve as a sanctuary for children, the most vulnerable members of the human family. Yet a report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child released on Feb. 5 expressed grave concern that the Catholic Church has not yet acknowledged the full extent of sexual abuse of young people by members of the clergy and has not done enough to protect them.

The report, as many commentators have pointed out, has some serious flaws. The committee and the church share a concern for protecting children from violence, sexually transmitted diseases and dangerous pregnancies, but we strongly disagree over some of the means and ends. The report chastised the church, for example, for failing to protect children from the “unacceptable” violence of corporal punishment, although the United Nations fails to recognize a moral duty to protect innocent children from the violence of abortion.

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Some Catholic voices have called for the Holy See to withdraw from the convention. The Holy See has rightly rejected this course of action. On Feb. 7 the Vatican acknowledged that some of the criticisms in the report are justified and promised to “continue its commitment” to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Holy See has signed and ratified. (The United States and Somalia are the only U.N. members that have not ratified the convention.)

The church in recent years has taken significant steps to protect and promote the well-being of children. Pope Benedict XVI insisted that church officials follow civil laws for reporting sexual abuse, encouraged “zero tolerance” for offenders and backed this up by laicizing nearly 400 priests in sexual abuse cases during the last two years of his papacy. In the United States every diocese has implemented safe environment training programs, and the number of abuse cases has fallen dramatically.

The U.N. report points out that policies and practices like these have not been adopted everywhere in the church. The Holy See should use its spiritual and canonical authority to promote the principles of the convention in every Catholic institution throughout the world.

The church needs to listen carefully to many of the observations and recommendations in the report. The U.N. commission invites the church, which has appropriately focused on “cleaning its own house,” to broaden its efforts by implementing programs to help prevent sexual abuse in the homes of Catholic families. The report rightly recommends that the church replace the canonical term “illegitimate children” with language that better reflects the dignity of each child.

As a moral leader, the church everywhere should also “condemn all forms of harassment, discrimination or violence against children based on their sexual orientation or the sexual orientation of their parents.” The church universal should also advocate for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Far from conflicting with Catholic teaching, this commitment embodies our belief that gay persons should be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination” should be avoided.

Perhaps most significantly, the United Nations is right to call for “a transparent sharing of all archives which can be used to hold the abusers accountable as well as all those who concealed their crimes and knowingly placed offenders in contact with children.” As revelations of abuse continue to trickle out of various U.S. dioceses, Catholics understandably wonder if more church leaders will take responsibility for their mistakes. Will more church leaders be held to account and subject to civil penalties for decisions that endangered, even if unintentionally, the lives of children?

In his Lenten message, Pope Francis said the season is a “fitting time for self-denial” and that he distrusts a charity that “costs nothing and does not hurt.” It may pain some in the church to grant any moral authority to a U.N. document that is indeed hostile to core aspects of Catholic teaching, but such a penance pales beside the enormity of the sin committed in the sexual abuse of children and its cover-up. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., of Boston recently told The Boston Globe that the new Vatican commission on sexual abuse should implement standards for holding bishops accountable. We agree.

Pope Francis has not yet spoken at length about the sexual abuse crisis. Lent is an appropriate time for him to publicly acknowledge the failures in church governance and to ensure the timely implementation of those U.N. recommendations that promote the genuine welfare of children.

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Kathleen Anderson
3 years 9 months ago
In the late 1980s I came across an article in my diocesan newspaper about a report on child sex abusers among the clergy, including all denominations. A large cross-section of ordained ministers (including Catholic priests) was discreetly surveyed on sex abuse, experienced and/or perpetrated. The most alarming statistics were on these ministers compared to the secular population: most of those in ordained ministry had experienced sexual abuse early in life. But what sharply set them apart was the relative tiny percentage of those abused were perpetrators compared to general society. It made sense to me back then, because when one is so horrifically victimized as a child, one’s life has been irrevocably changed; huge stores of emotional pain gets locked up inside, pervasive pain that is never completely gone. One can learn to manage the damage, and one of the best ways to do this is to minister to others. I am not clear on the exact information in this study, since it was so long ago. I did not keep a copy, and my deep-cyberspace research skills are still in practice, so as of yet, I have not found this article in some online archives. But I do know about being abused, even sexually, and how this changes one’s life forever. The abuse in my life had nothing to do with clergy, and my survival has everything to do with my powerful faith. To the world, it is unforgivable that any clergy ever had abused a child. I see that, and can relate. But why is the number one place of child abuse, even sexual abuse, kept relatively unspoken? The Church is a huge target; the experience of sex abuse by clergy is horrific; life is changed forever; there will never be enough done to repair the shattered lives. Child abuse, including sexual abuse, occurs far more often within the family and the immediate circle of relatives and friends, and little is mentioned about this compared to headliners about priests. My life is irreparably shattered from the abuse, including sexual abuse, which I had to live through, because of family. A healing and welcoming Church can be social leaders as we implement the high standards of prevention and restitution. We need to be an honest Church, and a healing presence to those victimized, no matter what the source of victimization.
john fitzmorris
3 years 9 months ago
Thank for at long last saying what needed to be said. America is to be congratulated for saying what had to be said. I believe that the ability of the Church to proclaim the gospel effectively hangs on addressing the issue of covering up criminal child abuse. And the time is ripe. I do not believe that it is efficacious in this context for the kettle to be calling the pot black by mentioning the failure of the UN to condemn the practice of abortion. That appears to be deflecting blame by saying you are as bad I am. When we have apologized and done penance for our sins then we can embark on that mission.
Helen Cohenour
3 years 9 months ago
Totally agree. After watching last nights Frontline about the Vatican and the abuses I say we certainly need to apologize and do penance. I am ashamed of the things that have been happening at the Vatican and throughout the Catholic world. Hopefully this new Pope can bring about some results. For one thing, close the Vatican Bank....
Molly Roach
3 years 9 months ago
Thank you for this balanced reflection on our painful situation.
Jim Lein
3 years 9 months ago
Just got the print edition, and read this more carefully than I did online. One sentence stands out: "The report chastised the church, for example, for failing to protect children from the 'unacceptable' violence of corporal punishment, although the UN fails to recognize a moral duty to protect innocent children from the violence of abortion." This sentence seems an attempt to invalidate the UN comments on sexual abuse because of the UN's stand on abortion. It links two separate issues. And this is apparently how the church sees it and why it tends to raise the abortion issue rather than deal separately and directly with the abuse issue. Strange illogic and what appears to be evasion of moral responsibility by pointing a judgmental finger at a critic of child sexual abuse by priests. Also, children are abused; fetuses, embryos and zygotes are aborted. The sentence, in effect, ends with the imflamatory charge that abortion is murder. For many people murder is murder and abortion is abortion. Non-Catholic organizations cannot be expected to see abortion as murder, and their not seeing this does not invalidate their comments on other issues.

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