The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child released today its concluding observations on the second periodic report of the Holy See. The report is making waves in the media because of the Committee’s very strong condemnation of the inadequacy of the Catholic Church’s response to the sexual abuse of children by its clergy all over the world. The full report is available here, and has many points of interest. The first, and indeed the most crucial from the standpoint of public international law, is how the Committee defines the scope of the Holy See’s obligations under the Convention, in para. 8:
The Committee is aware of the dual nature of the Holy See’s ratification of the Convention as the Government of the Vatican City State, and also as a sovereign subject of international law having an original, non-derived legal personality independent of any territorial authority or jurisdiction. While being fully conscious that bishops and major superiors of religious institutes do not act as representatives or delegates of the Roman Pontiff, the Committee nevertheless notes that subordinates in Catholic religious orders are bound by obedience to the Pope in accordance with Canons 331 and 590. The Committee therefore reminds the Holy See that by ratifying the Convention, it has committed itself to implementing the Convention not only on the territory of the Vatican City State but also as the supreme power of the Catholic Church through individuals and institutions placed under its authority.
This paragraph is the necessary starting point for practically all of the analysis that follows, and indeed the representatives of the Holy See have already put it into question (see the second para.). The Committee is essentially saying that the Holy See doesn’t merely have obligations under the Conventions towards children within the Vatican City limits – if there even are any – but also towards the millions of children whose lives are affected by individuals or institutions under Church authority, be it local priests or Church-run schools. This is, in other words, a massive claim on the Convention’s extraterritorial application, and if I’m not mistaken this is the first time it has been made so explicitly by a treaty body with respect to the Holy See. Note in this regard that the Committee does not employ the language of the jurisdiction clause in Article 2(1) CRC, nor makes it clear under what theory exactly the Convention applies extraterritorially on such a scale.
The bottom line of the Committee’s approach is that if, for instance, there are reports of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy in Ireland, both Ireland and the Holy See have a positive obligation to protect and ensure the human rights of these children (see paras. 37-38, 43-44). In that sense the Committee’s report complements rather well the European Court’s judgment of last week in O’Keeffe v. Ireland (application no. 35810/09), in which the Court found that Ireland failed to protect a schoolgirl from sexual abuse by a lay teaching in a Catholic school. On the whole, the Committee’s findings with respect to the sexual abuse of children are quite damning – see, e.g., para. 29: ‘The Committee is particularly concerned that in dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse, the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests, as observed by several national commissions of inquiry.’
Outside the question of sexual abuse, the report’s many findings and recommendations frequently demonstrate a clash of worldviews between the obviously very progressive, human-rightsy Committee and some of the socially conservative beliefs of the Catholic Church. The Committee thus recommends the Holy See to review its position on abortion, contraception, sexual orientation, family diversity, etc. (Good luck with that.) In that regard, the bit I found positively entertaining (and oh-so-very-Jesuit) is the Committee’s recommendation to the Holy See to (paras. 22 & 24):
strengthen its efforts to make all the provisions of the Convention widely known, particularly to children and their families, through, inter alia, developing and implementing specific long-term awareness-raising programmes, and including the provisions of the Convention into school curricula at all levels of the Catholic education system using appropriate material created specifically for children. … The Committee urges the Holy See to provide systematic training on the provisions of the Convention to all members of the clergy as well as Catholic orders and institutions working with and/or for children, and to include mandatory modules on children’s rights in the teachers’ training programmes as well as in seminaries.