By David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey
The United Nations committee that monitors compliance with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment is being urged by several influential nongovernmental organizations to condemn the Vatican when the committee meets this week in Geneva. These groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, claim that the Catholic Church’s handling of child-sexual-abuse accusations against priests and the church’s stand on birth control and abortion amount to violations of the Convention Against Torture.
If the U.N. committee were to grant the groups’ request and conclude that the Vatican has violated the Convention Against Torture, this would represent a legally insupportable and perverse interpretation of the treaty, actually weakening its effectiveness. It would also represent a blatant attack on religious freedom.
There is no doubt that for years the Catholic Church failed to deal in a timely and effective way with child sexual abuse by priests. More recently, however, the church has admitted its mistakes and instituted fundamental reforms to root out the problem, which is hardly unique to Catholics. According to the U.N.’s own World Health Organization Fact Sheet No. 150 on child maltreatment, “approximately 20% of women and 5-10% of men report being sexually abused as children.”
No one doubts the evil of child sexual abuse, but attempting to shoehorn it into the Convention Against Torture is legally incorrect. However monolithic the Catholic Church may seem, it is not a sovereign state, and the Vatican (which is) has no legal authority over the church hierarchy or the millions of Catholic believers around the world.
Although the papacy has enormous spiritual authority, its secular, legal power—which is what the treaty addresses—extends only to the 100 acres of Vatican City, which has about 800 residents. Accordingly, the Holy See in 2002 acceded to the Convention Against Torture for “the Vatican City State” and undertook “to apply it insofar as it is compatible, in practice, with the peculiar nature of that State.” Claims that the Vatican exercises such compelling control over all Catholic institutions and individuals that it bears responsibility for all of their actions reflect a basic misunderstanding of how the treaty and the church operate.
The treaty requires member states to refrain from torture and to take other actions to prevent and punish it by their citizens and within their territory. When Catholics, including Catholic clergy, commit crimes outside of Vatican City, their trial and punishment is up to the countries where crimes occurred. If church officials in those countries were complicit in the offenses, addressing that remains a matter of domestic law. All of this is well-known and accepted international practice.
Attempting to internationalize the very serious crime of child abuse by defining it as “torture” is also misguided. The treaty defines torture narrowly and is directed at states for a reason: to focus attention on repressive governments engaging in torture as a form of terror and as a means of preserving the regimes’ hold on power.
None of this makes a difference to the activists who want to accuse the Catholic Church of violating the Convention Against Torture. Among the most determined are those whose claims are a thinly veiled effort to use a U.N. forum to attack Catholic doctrine, especially the church’s stand on birth control and abortion. The Center for Reproductive Rights has even claimed that these key aspects of Catholic belief are themselves tantamount to psychological torture. How so? Because they insidiously shape human behavior, bringing feelings of shame to individuals who seek access to birth control or abortion services, and improperly use the church’s formidable spiritual authority to influence numerous governments to limit access to contraception and abortion services.
By that preposterous logic, any religious faith—or secular doctrine, for that matter—could be condemned for practicing torture if it seeks to motivate adherents to lead their lives in particular ways. This attempt to hijack the Convention Against Torture for political purposes degrades the definition of torture and undermines the treaty’s efforts to end these terrible practices.
Even critics of Catholic doctrine should appreciate that the Convention Against Torture is not the proper instrument, and its U.N. monitoring committee not the proper forum, to challenge anyone’s religious beliefs. Were a sovereign state to act in this manner and attempt to suppress or penalize religious beliefs, its behavior would violate other critical international instruments, including the U.N.’s own International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, with their explicit protections for religious liberty.
If the Convention Against Torture committee stretches the treaty to condemn an entire religious institution for the criminal behavior of individuals who belong to it, the treaty’s credibility will be dramatically diminished. That’s bad enough. But if the Convention Against Torture were used to single out the Vatican for condemnation, Catholics and Catholic clergy around the world would be marked as somehow collectively responsible for individual offenses, leaving these innocent people open to attack and persecution, particularly in countries where religious liberty is already threatened. This is not the mission of the Convention Against Torture—or of the United Nations.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey served in the U.S. Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. They are partners in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker & Hostetler LLP.