The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (“Committee”) describes itself as a “body of 18 Independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child [‘Convention’] by its State parties” and “publishes its interpretation of the content of human rights provisions.” Its so-called “independent experts” include representatives from such human rights abuser states as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain. They are described on the Committee’s website as “persons of high moral character and recognized competence in the field of human rights.”
One of these “independent experts,” the Committee’s Chairperson Kirsten Sandberg, charged last week that the Holy See, a non-member state permanent observer at the United Nations and a party to the Convention, “is in breach of the Convention.” She was commenting on the “concluding observations” contained in a scathing report the Committee had issued on January 31, 2014. The report denounced the Vatican’s handling of child abuse cases, criticized the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion and family discipline, urged the Pope to change his views on contraception and homosexuality, and interposed its own secular views on what should be taught in Catholic schools.
The Holy See, responding with a statement and in a Vatican Radio interview by its UN representative Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, promised to seriously study and examine the report’s recommendations. However, the Holy See also challenged the Committee for going beyond its mandate by attempting to “interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom.”
With regard to the allegations of child sexual abuse that occupied the most attention in the Committee’s report, the Committee said it was “gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.” The Committee also said it was concerned that “the Holy See has systematically placed preservation of the reputation of the Church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims.”
The Committee then proceeded to make a number of specific recommendations intended to remove the veil of secrecy in the handling of child sex abuse cases, end impunity for sex offenders, provide compensation for victims and institute preventive measures to help ensure that such abuses would not happen again. The Committee also recommended that the Commission for the Protection of Children, which Pope Francis established last December, be empowered to “investigate independently all cases of child sexual abuse as well as the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them.”
In making its recommendations, the Committee downplayed the Vatican’s own recent progress in dealing with the sexual abuse problem in its midst. And what’s more, the Committee did not limit its report to this one issue. Instead, the Committee used its report to launch an outrageous public campaign aimed at pressuring the Vatican into conforming the Catholic Church’s Canon Law more generally to the Committee’s interpretation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“The Committee recommends that the Holy See undertake a comprehensive review of its normative framework, in particular Canon Law, with a view to ensuring its full compliance with the Convention,” the report declared. It proclaimed that in the event of conflict between the provisions of the secular Convention and the provisions of the religious Canon Law, the Convention must prevail.
Since the Committee on the Rights of the Child assumes the authority to interpret and monitor compliance with the Convention, it is in effect saying that the Catholic Church should bend its own deeply held, faith-based teachings on moral and religious values affecting children to fit into the conclusory declarations of an unaccountable UN body. This would turn the inalienable right of free exercise of religion on its head.
For example, the Committee insisted that the Vatican should “amend Canon 1398 relating to abortion with a view to identifying circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.”
Canon Law is defined by the Catholic Encyclopedia as “the body of laws and regulations made by or adopted by ecclesiastical authority,” whose sources include “Divine Law.”
Canon 1398 is a rule of Canon Law which declares that “a person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication.” Canon Law 1397 dealing with homicide and other grave crimes against persons, together with Canon 1398, comprise the “Delicts Against Human Life And Freedom.”
The prohibition of abortion is a fundamental doctrine of the Catholic Church. It is intended to protect the sanctity of life, which observing Catholics consider to be a sacred obligation that supersedes whatever a United Nations Convention or uninformed UN political body might say to the contrary. Indeed, the Catholic Church believes that it is protecting children by opposing abortion. As one deacon wrote in response to the Committee report, “The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has used its report on sexual abuse of children by some clergy, and its cover up (sic) some bishops, as the opportunity to castigate the Catholic Church for not promoting killing children through abortion.”
Moreover, what’s important to note here is that the punishment for violation of Canon 1398 is excommunication from the Catholic Church. There is no state-imposed power under the control of the Holy See to execute or imprison the offender who performs or has an abortion. If a person decides not to adhere to the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church, the Church’s remedy is to no longer consider that person a bona fide member of the Church. A person who decides not to remain faithful to Catholic teachings is free to pursue any other faith or become a non-believer, without fear that the Church can force its will upon that person through the enforcement instruments of the state. Such powers of the Church are long gone.
But not so in Saudi Arabia, whose representative, Ms. Aseil Al-Shehail, is currently a Vice-Chairperson of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. In Saudi Arabia, governed by a strict interpretation of Sharia law, apostasy (turning one’s back on Islam to convert to another religion or to no belief at all) is considered a grave offense, punishable by death. Capital punishment, corporal punishment and life imprisonment are lawful sentences for children. Unlike the Holy See’s limited range of options in enforcing Catholic doctrine and religious norms only on the clergy and members of the Catholic Church, Saudi Arabia and its religious police enforce Sharia law against Muslims and non-Muslims through all of the instruments of state power.
The Committee has called for the Holy See to change its Canon Law to conform to the Convention and to “ensure that an interpretation of Scripture as not condoning corporal punishment is reflected in Church teaching and other activities and incorporated into all theological education and training.” Yet the Committee did not ask the Saudi Arabia government or its religious leaders to revise, interpret or apply Sharia law in a manner consistent with the Convention when the Committee had a chance to do so.
For example, in the “concluding observations” section of its 2006 report on Saudi Arabia, the Committee did not refer once explicitly to Sharia law. It made only the following glancing reference to religious law in general:
The Committee notes the information that the reservation which consists of a general reference to religious law and national law without specifying its contents, is mainly a precautionary measure and does not hamper the State party’s implementation of the Convention. But the Committee reiterates its concern that the general nature of the reservation allows courts, governmental and other officials to negate many of the Convention’s provisions and this raises serious concerns as to its compatibility with the object and purpose of the Convention.
The Committee’s 2006 Saudi Arabia report did express some general concerns about lack of religious freedom and de facto discrimination against girls, children born out of wedlock, and children of non-Saudi nationals. However, its concluding observations were muted in comparison to the Committee’s far stronger, more direct criticism of the Holy See.
While the Committee on the Rights of the Child took the Vatican to task for “past statements and declarations on homosexuality,” for instance, the Committee ignored the Saudi government’s harsh treatment of homosexuals in the concluding observations of its 2006 Saudi Arabia report.
While the Committee recommended including “the provisions of the Convention into school curricula at all levels of the Catholic education system using appropriate material created specifically for children,” it somehow neglected to mention that textbooks provided to children in Saudi Arabian schools taught them how to cut off the hands and feet of thieves and that Jews and homosexuals deserved death.
Ms. Aseil Al-Shehail, the Saudi Arabian Vice-Chairperson of the Committee who participated in casting judgment on Catholic religious laws and teachings, has made nothing but excuses for her home country and Sharia law. In 2010, for example, she shamelessly boasted at a UN meeting discussing women’s issues that in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, “the development of women was an integral part of a general strategic plan that conformed to magnanimous Sharia.”
In 2009, Ms. Aseil Al-Shehail told a UN committee discussing the rights of children that her country regarded the child as “a pillar of the community” and that “Saudi Arabia strived to strengthen the family and ensure children’s rights.” Neglecting to mention that Saudi Arabia had no specific law providing penalties relating to child prostitution nor any statutory rape law that would ensure children’s rights, she changed the subject to bogus accusations of “the torture and killing of Palestinian children in the occupied territories.”
In short, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, with a Vice-Chairperson representing and protecting a country with one of the world’s worst human rights records, is in no position to tell the Catholic Church to change or reinterpret Canon Law and Scripture to suit the Committee’s biased political agenda.
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