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The Truth about the Relationship between the Holy See and the International Community

Mgr. Silvano Maria Tomasi


Corrado Paolucci - published on 05/09/14

Mgr Tomasi on torture and child abuse prevention in the Vatican.

This week the Holy See participated in the UN Convention against Torture in Geneva. There has been lobbying by various private factions for the UN to come down hard on the Holy See with regards to its methods of dealing with child abuse within Catholic institutions around the world, as well as pushing for the Church to change its stance on abortion and homosexual marriage.

Aleteiahas interviewed Mgr. Silvano Maria Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See at the United Nations in Geneva, on the latest news out of this Convention, as well as on the prevention of child abuse and the various measures put forward by the Vatican that many people haven’t heard about. He also addressed the issue of the pressures presented by these lobbies.

The Committee of the Convention against Torture regards the cruelty and suffering committed and ‘allowed’ within a state. Why is the Vatican called into question in the case of sexual abuse by priests, which is tied to the actions of single individuals?

Mgr. Tomasi:Like with various other States Parties in the Convention Against Torture, the Holy See presented its Report, as required by the Convention itself, that it ratified in 2002. In the meeting, the Committee opened the door, so to speak, to a series of questions about sexual abuse committed by people who work for the Church, because Article 16 of the Convention speaks about "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Forms of sexual abuse are not, strictly speaking, acts of torture as defined in Article 1, because this requires that such actions are carried out "by a public official or any other person acting in an official capacity or under their instigation, or with their explicit or implicit consent." Article 16 seems to me, to permit discussing about sexual abuse of minors as degrading actions.

For this reason, questions were raised about the responsibility of the Church concerning pedophile priests and the cases that have occurred in various countries around the world. But what we are dealing with here is inhuman behaviour rather than torture, which would request the participation of state officials, which the priests have not.

In a long editorial, the Wall Street Journal criticised those associations called for the United Nations to speak out against the Vatican and against the line it took for handling the cases of pedophilia within it. In particular, the Center for Reproductive Rights is lobbying for the teachings of the Vatican on the subject of abortion to be considered as "equal to psychological torture." What do you think?

Mgr Tomasi: The fact that there are representatives of civil society who take part in the activities of the United Nations seems to me to be a good thing. Unfortunately, some of these non-governmental organizations are a bit fanatical or adopt a methodology which is rather closed to an objective reading of reality.

In other words, while the functioning of the United Nations takes on a democratic basis through the representation of the Member States, there are NGOs or officials who march along other tracks, pursuing their personal convictions, an agenda that reflects a vision of man founded on extreme and egoistic individualism.

This, however, does not affect in any way the legal position of the Holy See within the United Nations. In fact, I would say that in recent months my little experience here in Geneva has been one of great respect and solidarity on the part of the representatives of the States. In contrast, representatives of some non-governmental organizations sometimes take a fundamentalist attitude in the sense that they close their eyes to the evidence of the facts and to what has been done and is being done both in relation to these problems of sexual abuse and in relation to the culture change that has occurred in treating them.

In addition, the attempt to impose upon the Holy See a change in its beliefs is a direct violation of freedom of opinion and belief, which is a fundamental human right.

A meeting was announced  between the Pope and the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon on 9 May. Can you comment on this?

Mgr Tomasi: The meeting of the Pope with the highest representatives of the UN is a sign of the Church’s commitment – as the Second Vatican Council says – to be a leader in the international community in promoting everything that strengthens solidarity within the human family.

The Holy See thus strives for a sense of solidarity between countries and people, for the freedom that must be accepted both in terms of the beliefs and opinions of the people and for the right to active participation in social life. Despite the criticism that some very "vocal" and very active factions, who find a good sounding board in the media, and who seek to put up resistance and to set aside the voice of the Church and the Christian tradition, the truth is that the relationship between the Holy See and the international world is very good. I would say that two different cultures are revealed in this contrast. This I think is at the root of some of these divisions, of some of the attitudes, that we find towards the ethical positions of the Holy See.

We maintain a reading of the human person which is based on their dignity and ability to know the truth, created in the image of God, existing in relation to the other, not only to individuals but also to transcendence. Another culture instead leads to the extreme, an individualism that seeks to make every desire a human right, without taking into account the responsibility that our choices have, of the consequences towards others.

The difference between these two anthropologies is reflected in practical life, in the minds of some NGOs towards the Church’s position on abortion, for example, which we believe is a form of torture for the child, while for others it is seen as a simple health service without taking into account the rights of the person that are eliminated in the process.  In such a way, we can draw a parallel with other questions such as marriage with same-sex partners.

Of course in the international public culture there is a strong component which represents the second alternative. But it seems to me that the power of the Gospel is ever-new and it’s not the first time in history that the community of faithful, who live these values ​​coming from the Gospel, is called to transform society and culture.

In 2015 the World Day of Families will take place in the U.S. in Philadelphia. Is an intervention by Pope Francis at the Assembly of the United Nations a feasible prospect?

Mgr Tomasi:yes, there is certainly a precedent. Paul VI, John Paul II and Pope Benedict have all gone to the United Nations in New York, taking part in the General Assembly, and leaving their message. It is possible that Pope Francis too, will follow this tradition, but I have had no indication to that effect. It must also be taken into account that the Holy See feels it a responsibility to participate constructively in international life, even if there are difficulties to be encountered.

Are any other measures being put forward by the Holy See with regards to sexual abuse? What is the Vatican’s specific path ahead?

Mgr. Tomasi:The measures that have been taken within the Vatican City State regard the laws that have been modified precisely in consideration to the requests made by the Convention against Torture and other international treaties, and these laws include – in an explicit way –  punishment for crimes like the sexual abuse of minors.

Then there are some new measures; the most recent being the "Commission for the Protection of Children," established by Pope Francis. We can see here clearly the will of the Holy See at both the pastoral level (as the Universal Church), and the legal level (as Vatican City), of encouraging all those direct decisions that prevent the repetition of these crimes, to punish the perpetrators and to ensure that within the institutions run by the Church, there is both serenity and trust.

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