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As UN Torture Committee Probes Vatican, Sex-Abuse Survivors Urge Church to End Decades-Long Cover-up

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The U.N. Committee on Torture sharply questioned the Vatican this week over its handling of sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church. The hearing came just four months after the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child accused the Vatican of systematically turning a blind eye to decades of abuse and attempting to cover up sex crimes. During this week’s hearing, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi revealed the church had dismissed more than 800 priests for sexual abuse of children in the past decade. A number of survivors of sexual abuse attended this week’s hearing, including our guest, Barbara Blaine, president and founder of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. We are also joined by Katherine Gallagher, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and counsel for SNAP in their international advocacy work.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The U.N. Committee on Torture sharply questioned the Vatican this week over its handling of sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church. The hearing came just four months after another U.N. body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, accused the Vatican of systematically turning a blind eye to decades of abuse and attempting to cover up sex crimes. During this week’s hearing, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi revealed the church had dismissed more than 800 priests for sexual abuse of children in the past decade.

ARCHBISHOP SILVANO TOMASI: There were, since 2004 to the end of 2015, 848 priests who were dismissed from the clerical status and reduced to the lay status, and several hundred more had received other types of penalties, so that together they are about 3,500 priests.

AMY GOODMAN: Archbishop Tomasi went on to say the church has been addressing the crisis in a systematic and effective way over the past decade.

ARCHBISHOP SILVANO TOMASI: Society is alive. It changes. It evolves. And so does the church in a lot of ways. And the culture of society that has affected the church changes, and now we are in a new moment. And if you look at the facts in a fair way, you see that a lot of measures have been taken by the Holy See, by local churches, that indeed are making a change and are effective in the work of prevention of sexual abuse of minors, in particular, and of a renewed attention to the victims of past abuses.

AMY GOODMAN: A number of survivors of sexual abuse attended this week’s hearing, including our first guest, Barbara Blaine, president and founder of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. She joins us by Democracy Now! video stream. We’re also joined by Katherine Gallagher, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. She’s counsel for SNAP in their international advocacy work, and she just flew back from Geneva.

Barbara Blaine, let’s begin with you. What is the result of the hearings? And do you find what the Vatican has done adequate?

BARBARA BLAINE: Well, it seems as though the Vatican officials continue to split hairs and try to dodge responsibility. They claim to not have the authority to stop the sexual violence, and we are convinced that they do and that they are making lofty statements, but they’re not really taking action that would protect children.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the sheer numbers that they revealed, $2.5 billion that they say has been paid in compensation and 800 priests, could you respond to that?

BARBARA BLAINE: Well, I think it’s really important to recognize that numbers are not going to protect children. We would say, where—what are the names of these individual predators, and where are they today? That kind of information is what would protect children. And we continue to receive reports that sexual predators remain in ministry. We think that Pope Francis and the Vatican should immediately remove all the sexual predators, and we think that they should be punishing the bishops who have transferred these predators and enabled them.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how broad, widespread the problem is? The numbers of priests that they’ve expelled, that they’ve punished, and the number of people that you think are involved?

BARBARA BLAINE: Well, there’s no way of really knowing completely how many. The church’s own officials will admit to approximately 100,000 victims in the United States alone, but we believe there are many more. And our concern is that we keep hearing reports that priests who have been removed, allegedly removed, from ministry keep turning up, working in ministry in a new location. And so, we are not confident that children are not at risk. In fact, we believe there are children and vulnerable adults who are being raped and sodomized even today.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara, can you tell us your own story, why did you founded SNAP? What happened to you?

BARBARA BLAINE: Well, when I was growing up over in Toledo, Ohio, the priest in my parish began to sexually violate me in the summer between seventh and eighth grade. I didn’t tell anyone 'til I was well into adulthood, assumed it was my fault and at the same time felt helpless to stop it. But it wasn't until I was into my thirties before I really went back to the church officials and tried to confront and face this. And when they didn’t help me, I started looking for other victims. And this was the 1980s, and there was a self-help group for everyone then, so we had a theory that we would just find each other and figure out how to find healing. Unfortunately, what we learned is that many of our perpetrators were still in ministry, and the church officials had really duped us into keeping us from law enforcement and promised that our perpetrators would be removed from ministry, when in fact that is not what happened.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Katherine Gallagher, I wanted to ask you, this is—this is a scandal that has been being exposed now for decades, and it continues to grow in size. The significance of now the United Nations Committee on Torture taking up this issue on the world scale?

KATHERINE GALLAGHER: Yeah, we consider what happened this week quite historic. As you indicated, this is the second time this year that a U.N. body has called the Vatican to account for its actions. And bringing it to the international level is really the appropriate place. As Barbara pointed out, this is a global problem, and it requires a global response. SNAP has heard from victims in 79 countries. And for far too long, these acts have been called “sexual abuse” or “inappropriate touching.” The actions have been minimized. What we’re hoping comes out of the Committee Against Torture is recognizing these acts for what they are—international crimes, torture, cruel and inhuman and degrading treatment—and that in doing so, it both validates what has been done to the survivors, the victims, the profound harm, as well as carries with it some of the legal triggers of recognizing torture, in terms of national prosecutions or even international action.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this becomes possible because the Vatican only recently signed the Convention on Torture, isn’t it?

KATHERINE GALLAGHER: Well, the Vatican actually signed the convention 12 years ago. As most countries come to report every three or four years, the Vatican was nine years late in putting in its first report. SNAP and the Center for Constitutional Rights went to the International Criminal Court in 2011, and since that time, we have seen international focus put on this issue and a real recharacterization of the problem as isolated to certain countries or, again, just sexual abuse, and really recognizing it for the global crimes that it is and the role of the higher-ups in the Vatican for enabling these crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean that the Holy See’s position about adherence to the U.N. Convention Against Torture applies only to the territory of Vatican City?

KATHERINE GALLAGHER: Yes, this is something that we heard the Vatican press both before the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee Against Torture, saying, “OK, the Vatican had signed onto these treaties, but it’s really only that small territory in Rome that the obligations apply to.” Both committees pressed back on that and said, “No, anywhere where the Vatican has effective control over high-level officials, such as bishops and cardinals, where the policies and practices of the Vatican can be carried out.” And, unfortunately, what we’ve seen so far is that those policies have been to cover up these crimes, to obstruct justice, to encourage secrecy and confidentiality. And hopefully what we’ll be seeing now is clear instructions from the Committee Against Torture that anywhere where you have effective control over church officials, they must in fact comply with national authorities, mandatory reporting requirements, they must turn over known suspected priests who have engaged in acts of rape and sexual violence, and really put an end to these crimes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, some of the groups that attended the U.N. torture hearings in Geneva defended the Catholic Church. They said that the church is now a safe place for children. Ashley McGuire serves on the board of Catholic Voices USA.

ASHLEY McGUIRE: The church has now actually become one of the safest places for children in the world. I think it’s certainly a source of great sadness, what happened with the sexual abuse crisis, but we’re in a different era now. And not only that, but the church is doing very important work on the front lines defending and helping children, helping women who are in difficult situations. And it would be—it would actually endanger them, I think, were this committee to label them essentially a sponsor of torture.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Ashley McGuire of Catholic Voices. Barbara Blaine, your response?

BARBARA BLAINE: Well, I just think that it’s—that is just not true. The evidence shows that—I mean, she cannot and has not shown even one bishop who has been punished for covering up these crimes and allowing these predators to remain in ministry. I mean, if Pope Francis were sincere and if he wanted to protect children, we believe that he would punish the bishops. For example, right now, there is a bishop in Kansas City who has been found guilty of endangering children, and he’s still the bishop. And so, when the Catholic Church officials claim that they have cleaned everything up, we keep saying, “But where is the evidence of that?” And we’re not finding it, and in fact we’re finding just the opposite. It was only a couple years ago that a grand jury report from Philadelphia indicated that the grand jurors had found 37 accused predators working in ministry within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. And that’s actually one of the questions that the committee put to the Vatican officials. And as far as I heard, I did not hear any response to that question. And they asked specific questions, for example, about Father Jeyapaul, a priest, an Indian national, who had abused children in the—in a diocese in northern Minnesota, and he is still facing extradition and has not—has not returned to face the charges in Minnesota. And the church officials have been assisting him in his role as a fugitive and not insisting that he return to face those charges.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara, what do you recommend, as a survivor yourself? How do parents and kids deal, who go to church, to protect themselves?

BARBARA BLAINE: Well, I think it’s really important that parents remain vigilant. It’s like in so many situations: No one wants to believe that someone that we revere and respect, someone who’s close to God, would actually sexually violate someone. And by all means, most priests don’t do this, but an alarming number—I mean, the church officials at the—Archbishop Tomasi admitted approximately 4 percent, and the statistics coming out from the U.S. Conference of Bishops would indicate it’s probably a little over 5 percent. But still, I think it’s important that they remain vigilant. And I think it’s really important that Pope Francis stop having all these lofty words and setting up a commission to study. We don’t need studies. Everyone knows that sexually violating a child is just—it’s a crime. And those things should be turned over to the police and not investigated in the church. And we should stop coddling and protecting the predators.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Katherine Gallagher, I wanted to raise a question about the failures of law enforcement in so many of these countries to actually pursue what is, in effect, crimes. I mean, generally speaking, the local archbishop in any community is a major figure, a powerful figure in a particular locality. And yet, time and again, the authorities have not really gone after, in a systematic way, this scandal and these abuses.

KATHERINE GALLAGHER: That is definitely true. We’ve seen that slightly change in some jurisdictions here in the United States, and I would have to give credit to SNAP and other survivors who have really put—brought this problem to the attention of district attorneys and continue to press for investigations and prosecutions. But in far too many places around the world, particularly in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa, where we don’t hear the—about as many cases, it’s not because there isn’t a problem; it’s because we don’t have the investigations going on, we don’t have the prosecutions and the national commissions. So, I would call on law enforcement to national authorities to be much more vigilant and much more aggressive in investigating and prosecuting these cases and to not, you know, bow to the pressures of putting forward what may be seen as unpopular cases in some areas.

AMY GOODMAN: Katherine, we’re going to link to your report, shadow report that you prepared for the U.N. Committee Against Torture. But what most surprised you in these findings? Among them, you talk about suicide.

KATHERINE GALLAGHER: Yeah. The acts of torture documented in our report, with cover art by Megan Peterson, a survivor, quite powerful work, you know, the prevalent—I was mentioning torture includes a prevalent, severe mental harm. And we talk about survivors, but there are many people who have not survived these horrific acts. In Australia, they just found 40 cases of suicide, because you lose your family, in many cases, your friends, your community. The isolation and the guilt, the victim blaming, this leads far too many people to take their own lives. And the church often refers to these as crimes of the past. We met with a survivor in Switzerland who himself was assaulted when he was a preteen, and his eight-year-old sister came home from school in the 1970s reporting that she, too, had been raped. Just last year, she took her own life, after decades of trying to battle this problem and living with the long-standing harm. So it’s really devastating, and we’re very glad that the Committee Against Torture is looking at this with the seriousness it needs.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Katherine Gallagher, we want to thank you for being with us, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, for the last three years has served as counsel for SNAP. And Barbara Blaine, thanks for joining us from Prague, from the Czech Republic, after leaving Geneva, president and founder of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

When we come back, we’re going to look at a different aspect of this issue: “By Grace Alone: As Sex-Abuse Allegations Multiply, Billy Graham’s Grandson is on a Mission to Persuade Protestant Churches to Come Clean.” Stay with us.

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