A United Nations committee lectured the Catholic Church about child abuse in a report issued last week. This had some value if seen as a global consolidation of horror over the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy and disgust over the way bishops failed in their ministry of oversight.
But the Committee on Protecting the Rights of the Child went too far. It criticized Church teaching on contraception, on abortion and on its valuation of celibacy. The report even criticized the practice of providing safe and anonymous drop-off places for the infants of mothers who can’t or don’t want to keep their babies.
The UN committee directed its criticisms and recommendations at the Vatican after it held hearings in Geneva, Switzerland, last month. Last week’s report ignored the testimony of Church representatives detailing worldwide moves to build new protection for children into Church practices and new policies on the training and discipline of clergy.
It treats the Church as frozen in a dim-witted time of rampant, covered-up abuse, rather than a dynamic and complex institution discovering and learning as it goes. There was that dim-witted time, tragically, but it does no good to act as if this defines the institution. There is a caricature of the Catholic Church — both within and outside the membership — that the Church cannot change. That has never been true. We are a community continually forming and reforming ourselves within a vision based on the Gospel lived out in time.
The UN Committee on Protecting the Rights of the Child has important work to do. It is charged with reviewing worldwide compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989. This, in turn, was part of an evolution building on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948 as part of its foundational ideals.
Critics of the Church, such as the UN committee, are valuable partners in helping us be what we profess to be: people of God. It is never pleasant to be slapped awake from moral slumber, as some news media did with the clergy sex abuse scandal. We are much better for it, though, and should be grateful. Bishops now realize more clearly that management skills and priorities, important as they might be, are secondary in their ministry. First are the priorities of the Gospel.
Still, we can hope that criticism will focus on a particular problem and its immediate causes, not be sprayed across anything remotely related. The UN report suggests that some committee members or advisors are interested in rewriting the Church’s Canon Law. They should apply for that job at the Vatican, not do it from a UN committee room.
We are much better as a Church today in caring about the needs of children, especially their vulnerability. Will we as an institution maintain today’s vigilance? We’ve done some things well in responding to the abuse crisis, but there is lingering doubt on that issue. Where oversight remains exclusively in the hands of celibate males, even the best-intentioned celibate males, how long will it be before we slip back into a culture that gives them excessive privilege, with all of the psychological danger such status brings?
There is a way to meet that challenge: make women, especially mothers, a mandatory part of any committee, commission, board and Vatican congregation making policy that affects children and their care in the Church. Such women would need voting rights as well as advisory roles.
When we look for causes of the sex abuse scandal, one of the clearest is an absence: the absence of women in the system. Psychologists a half-century ago may have excused a sex abuser and said he could be reformed, and lawyers may have advised bishops to keep everything quiet and in-house. How well would that work with a few mothers in the room?