What is the issue?
Children have long suffered systemic sexual abuse within religious institutions all over the world — a centuries-old problem shrouded in secrecy, cover-ups, and a lack of accountability. The Catholic Church is one such institution which, in 2014, came under international scrutiny. The Holy See, the sovereign State headed by the Pope, who in turn heads the Roman Catholic Church, had its children’s rights record reviewed by the United Nations for the first time in almost 20 years. The State was questioned primarily on the global scale of sexual abuse against children within the church by its own clergy, the cover-ups that took place from the highest levels of authority, the denial of justice and compensation for victims, and the systemic failure to effectively protect children.
How the Catholic Church has responded to its home-grown sex abuse scandal sets a dangerous tone for how powerful institutions view and treat children and their human rights.
What is the problem?
Ahead of the UN’s review of the Holy See, CRIN published a global report that documented how the Catholic Church has for many decades sought to keep the abuse hidden to protect its image by transferring abusive priests from one parish to another or abroad, refusing to collaborate with civil authorities during abuse investigations, and opposing national legal reform that would help survivors to seek justice.
To begin improving its appalling children’s rights record, the UN recommended that the Holy See reform the church’s internal procedures, namely in the areas of child protection and abuse prevention, transparency and reporting, and accountability. But obscure and rigid internal structures and a chronic lack of political will continue to delay any progress. These factors inevitably pave the way for some of the worst crimes against children to continue and for survivors to be denied justice.
What is the solution?
Transparency, access to justice for children, and protection from violence are crucial. The Catholic Church urgently needs to reform its internal policies so as to open itself to human rights scrutiny, prevent cover-ups, and allow victims to access justice. To this end, the church should firstly impose a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse against children and ensure it is implemented across all countries in which it operates.
Additionally, the church should choose full disclosure of information over self-preservation by not covering up scandals that allow child abusers to harm more children, and by cooperating with civil authorities to allow survivors to access justice. With this, the church would become more transparent, honest and law-abiding for the sake of its followers and its own damaged credibility.