In addition to calling Archbishop Silvano Tomasi and Bishop Charles J. Scicluna to account for a decades-long, worldwide epidemic of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Committee conducting this historic proceeding in Geneva last week also demanded responses to questions concerning the church’s trampling on girls’ reproductive health and rights.
Chairwoman Kirsten Sandberg and others wanted to know what the church was doing about uncovering the whereabouts of the children born to young, unmarried women who were essentially enslaved in Ireland’s Magdalene Asylums or Laundries and forced to relinquish their babies to adoption, a situation brilliantly dramatized in the film Philomena, with Oscar-nominated Judi Dench playing the real Philomena Lee.
“The position of the Holy See,” pronounced Tomasi, the Vatican’s Geneva representative to the UN, “is that the state has already taken its responsibility and is proceeding…through the courts….It is the responsibility of local institutions.” In other words, it’s not our job— the same position the Vatican officials took, repeatedly and disingenuously, on their refusal to act on local clergy sex abuse crimes.
Charging that the policy of the church institutions that ran the Laundries has not been to turn over their records, a blunt Sandberg issued a challenge: “I trust that you will ask the local churches to do that.” Neither Tomasi nor Scicluna, formerly the Vatican’s top sex abuse prosecutor, said that they would.
The chairwoman also brought up the story from Brazil of “the nine-year-old girl who had an emergency life-saving abortion after rape by her stepfather,” followed by the excommunication of mother and doctor, “with no measure taken against the father,” aka, the rapist. “Explain this,” Sandberg said. In that case, regional archbishops Jose Cardoso Sobrinho astonishingly admitted that the rapist had “committed an extremely serious crime,” but that “abortion is even more serious.”
Soon after, another committee member, Hungary’s Maria Herczog, brought up a situation from Nicaragua, where the Catholic Church vigorously supports a ban on all abortions. The situation involved “a ten-year-old girl forced to give birth after being raped, with the full support of the Catholic Church and the local community. How do we challenge these unbearable situations in the name of the church?” she asked. And that was not an isolated situation. As reported by Amnesty International, a media survey found that of girls raped who became pregnant in Nicaragua from 2005 to 2007, nearly 90% were between the ages of 10 and 14.
Tomasi ignored the girl in Nicaragua, but addressed “the child forced to abort in Brazil.” Regarding the stepfather’s not being excommunicated for raping a child, he said, “The father should be treated like the mother and the child—it’s a good point,” as if the thought had never occurred to him. In a church that holds women responsible for sexual “sins” that may actually be the case. Reiterating the day’s refrain, completely ignorant of the irony, he declared: “The priority remains the good of the children.”
Dr. Herczog then brought up another subject that affects the lives of women and girls the world over (and has since at least the 4th century). “Children of priests in many parts of the world are becoming quite visible and known, in some parts of the world more acceptable than others,” said Herczog. “How do you see their position in a family context?”
The father’s responsibility, replied Tomasi, is “whatever the responsibility of the individual is, according to the state,” as well as “the natural responsibility that comes from fathering children.” Once again, he declared: “The principle priority has to be given to children and their future.”
Tell that to the women who have gone to rectories the world over looking for support for the children they have had by priests. Like Rita Milla, whose case I investigated for Ms. and wrote about in my book, Good Catholic Girls. She was molested in a confessional at the age of 16, then pimped out by that priest to other priests in the LA Archdiocese who took her to a hotel they rented by the hour.
When she got pregnant and refused the priest’s urging her to have an abortion, he sent her to the Philippines to deliver, where she nearly died. When Rita came back to LA, penniless and with an infant daughter, she told her story to Bishop John Ward. He didn’t get back to her for four months, then told her that the priest she suspected was the father was merely a guest in the LA Archdiocese and not under his jurisdiction. When I called Ward he said to me: “I referred her to the proper authorities and that was the end of it. I had nothing more to do with her.” Click.
The church’s recent history worldwide is replete with stories of priests forcing the women they impregnated to have abortions; of nuns impregnated by priests being thrown out of their convents while the men remain priests in good standing; of mothers of priests’ children being forced to sign confidentiality agreements to get any support at all.
These issues—forcing children to bear children, forced child relinquishment, abandonment of children by Catholic priests—were not the main subjects of this hearing, but that they were mentioned is noteworthy because the church’s history of child abuse has taken many forms. And that history is tied intimately to the hierarchy’s history of secrecy, hypocrisy on the sexuality of its own clerics, misogyny which denies women’s moral authority, and gender apartheid, which relegates women to second-class status and surely enabled those all-male power brokers in clerical collars to callously dismiss the desperate mothers of molested children who came to them for action.
There was a lot of talk at the hearing about the gap between action and words, which the Holy See officials promised to remedy. The way Pope Francis chose to spend this day marking the first time the Vatican was called to account for crimes against children in a prominent international forum does not bode well. As Anthea Butler pointed out here on RD, while Tomasi and Scicluna spent some eight hours shifting uncomfortably in their seats, grimacing, lowering their gaze, laughing nervously, denying reality, and feigning gratitude for the Committee’s suggestions, Pope Francis was spending his time with one of the church’s most notorious enablers of violence against children by Catholic priests, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, former head of the LA Archdiocese. Not only did the Pope grant Mahoney an audience; they celebrated Mass together.
To the church’s walking wounded, for the Pope to “honor” such a man, as Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests’ founder Barbara Blaine described it, was painful, insulting, and just one more indication of how the church (including this new Pontiff who has engendered so much hope) still doesn’t get it.