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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The UN, the Vatican: rape, torture, and suicide

Understanding Clergy Sexual 'Abuse' as Torture

On Monday and Tuesday, a United Nations committee in Geneva asked the Vatican very tough questions about its track record on preventing and punishing acts of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The Committee Against Torture and international human rights law have long understood rape and sexual violence as forms of torture because, as one international tribunal observed, rape "strikes at the very core of human dignity and physical integrity." Most of the Committee's questioning was directed to the Vatican's handling of widespread and systemic sexual violence by clergy.


Some studies indicate rates of attempted suicide are as much as 12 times higher for people who experienced sexual violence as children than those who had not. As one member of the Committee noted today, commissions of inquiry and other investigations into clergy sexual violence have documented this pattern:

- A commission in Belgium reported at least 13 people were believed to have committed suicide as a result of the sexual assaults by clerics;

- A commission in Australia was established in the midst of controversy surrounding news reports that at least 40 people who had been reportedly sexually assaulted by clergy had committed suicide. A police investigation suggested that church officials had known about the linkages but had chosen to remain silent.

- In Kansas City, a police investigation linked five suicides of young men to the sexual assaults they endured at the hands of one priest.

In addition to the elevated risk of suicide, research has shown that adult survivors of childhood sexual violence are far more likely to experience acute and chronic mental health issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder, major depression, and severe anxiety. More recent research indicates that traumatic stress caused by childhood sexual violence can even cause neurological damage and changes in brain function. Other studies suggest increased risk of other health problems, including increased risk of cancer.

The context of clergy sexual violence carries with it a particularly insidious and devastating kind of harm given the betrayal of trust and profound significance of religious authority, with priests and bishops held out as God's "representatives." Manfred Nowak, a former UN expert on torture, emphasized the impact that religious authority can have in these situations when he observed that torture is often an exploitation of powerlessness and that rape is an "extreme expression of this power relation, of one person treating another person as merely an object." The Australian commission noted that the harm of sexual violence is exacerbated when the perpetrator enjoys a position of "high moral standing" as priests and others associated with the church often do. A grand jury in Philadelphia observed after a lengthy investigation into clergy sexual violence that "the human toll of the Archdiocesan policies is staggering." It found that not only had children "suffered the horror of being sexually assaulted by priests" but were then "victimized a second time by an Archdiocesan administration that in many cases ignored, minimized or attempted to conceal their abuse."


Vatican representatives today tried to limit their responsibility under the Convention Against Torture to acts occurring within the tiny confines of Vatican City State - blaming other governments for failing to protect children and vulnerable adults from clergy sexual violence on their territories. International law and the committee of experts are clear that the obligations under the Convention do not end at the border of any state but extend beyond their territories, particularly when agents acting on behalf of a state are involved in perpetrating or acquiescing in the perpetration of crimes like torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Last week, Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi was already urging the UN Committee Against Torture not "to bring the issue of the sexual abuse of minors into the discussion on torture" - once again minimizing the lived realities of survivors and the severe physical and mental suffering they have endured ...


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