The Days of Impunity for Vatican Officials Are Numbered

Last week, for the first time ever, an international body asked questions about the Vatican’s handling of widespread and systemic rape and sexual violence. Last Wednesday, survivors of rape and sexual violence by Catholic priests met with members of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in Geneva, calling the Vatican to account for its ongoing failure to abide by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a U.N. treaty that the Vatican long ago signed but, like the children it is designed to protect, has systematically neglected.

Wednesday’s historic meeting is the latest sign that a growing global movement is closing in on that day when Vatican officials will be held accountable for their systemic enabling of rape and sexual abuse. In March, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), submitted a report to the UN Committee outlining the myriad ways the Vatican is in perpetual violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Now the CRC has called on the Vatican to report on its implementation, or lack thereof, of its human rights obligations.

The global expansion of this movement is a product of survivors’ efforts to internationalize the search for justice in response to a problem they came to understand as international in scope. As SNAP founder Barbara Blaine observed, “It’s a worldwide problem. We’re a worldwide movement.”

The first big step in the quest for worldwide accountability was the September 2011 complaint that SNAP and CCR submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor setting out the ways in which the magnitude, scale and gravity of the offenses against children amount to crimes against humanity. In April 2012, we submitted additional evidence that had come to light since the first filing.

The ICC has jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, which include rape and other forms of sexual violence when committed on a widespread or systematic basis. We urged an investigation of high-level Vatican officials, including former pope Joseph Ratzinger, for overseeing and implementing policies and practices which require cover-up and which they know enable further abuse. This May, the prosecutor’s office responded to the request indicating that for the time being the office could not proceed further with an investigation, while leaving open the door to the possibility of pursing an investigation later on in light of future submissions by survivors or others with relevant evidence. The prosecutor’s office also urged efforts in national jurisdictions since the ICC is to be a court of last resort and can only operate in situations where national authorities are shown to be unwilling or unable to genuinely carry out an investigation and prosecution.

What happened between the initial filing at the ICC and the prosecutor’s recent response was astounding. In the wake of worldwide media coverage, SNAP was contacted by thousands of survivors and allies from more than 70 countries. In April, survivors from twelve countries and five continents gathered in Dublin for the first international conference organized by SNAP.

More survivors are finding each other, and more secrets and cases are being brought to light. In Australia, two commissions have been formed in response to the public outcry spurred by revelations of widespread abuse and cover-up, includingreports that church officials knew about high rates of suicides and premature deaths by abuse victims but chose to remain silent.

In Ireland, which has been the site of a number of shattering revelations and inquiries, the United Nations Committee Against Torture has held the government of Ireland responsible for violating the Convention Against Torture for the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including rape and sexual violence, suffered by residents of the Magdalene Laundries, institutions which were run by the Catholic church.

Whistleblowers have begun to emerge around the world. In Uganda, a lone priest has come forward with a public lettercalling sexual abuse among African priests an “open secret.” He was suspended for his candor. In Australia, three bishops have decried the “systematic causes” of sexual abuse in the church and the “unchristian response to those who have suffered” and called for an Ecumenical Council on the subject. In the United States, a group of priests and nuns concerned that the Church is still protecting sexual offenders banded together and recently formed Catholic Whistleblowers.

And, of course, in February, for the first time in 600 years, a pope resigned. Regardless of what the actual reason for the resignation may have been, the Vatican could not escape questions about its handling of sexual abuse by priests norreports that former pope, Joseph Ratzinger, was concerned enough about these issues to attempt to guarantee his immunity from arrest or suit once he stepped down.

What is clear from all of these developments and those that will no doubt continue to unfold, is that the days of total impunity for Vatican officials are numbered. We still have a long way to go but the world is finally closing in. All of this is the result of survivors around the world breaking the silence and reclaiming their lives to protect others from this multi-faceted and deeply traumatizing harm. We can only hope, and must continue the work to ensure, that the courage of those tasked with doing justice will soon match the extraordinary courage of survivors.