Catholic priests' sex abuse should be classed as torture, say victim groups

Rome

On the same day as the UN Committee Against Torture grilled Vatican officials about the Catholic Church’s response to the global paedophilia scandal, victim groups demanded that clerical abuse be recognised as a form of torture.

Committee members in Geneva urged a permanent investigation system to end a “climate of impunity”. The Vatican delegation also faced a barrage of questions regarding past policy decisions.

The inquiry follows a damning report into the Holy See’s role in the abuse scandal published on 4 February by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The report condemned the Church’s “code of silence” on paedophile priests, which it said was allowing known sex offenders to continue working with children.

Lawyers and victims of abuse said yesterday that the Holy See, as a signatory to the 1987 UN Convention on Torture, was now facing censure under anti-torture agreements at national and international levels.

“There is a body of national and international law in which rape and sexual abuse has been recognised as a form of torture and cruel and degrading treatment. This includes Article 1 of the torture convention to which the Holy See has signed up,” said Pam Spees, a lawyer at the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CRC) in New York.

The UN committee will announce its conclusions on whether the clerical abuse scandal means the Vatican has failed in its commitment to “prevent, punish and redress” all forms of torture on 23 May.

Katherine Gallagher, another CRC lawyer, said: “We must expect that there will be a number of concerns expressed [by the committee] that the Vatican has not met its international obligations.”

She predicted that if the UN committee concluded that sexual abuse serious enough to be considered torture had occurred, then there would be important legal ramifications.

“I think what we’re going to have out of this committee inquiry is recognition that these cases are acts of rape, not simply sexual assault. As a result, the statutes of limitations in many countries will not apply and we could see the 155 signatory countries to the UN Torture Convention obliged to investigate these acts,” she said.

The Vatican’s full response is expected on Tuesday. But chief Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, warned that “the Holy See would not bow to pressure from ‘strongly ideological’ NGOs”.

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