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Understanding Clergy Sexual 'Abuse' as Torture

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By Pam Spees, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights

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.

While some Vatican officials have suggested that the church is being singled out for special treatment, the Vatican in fact submitted itself to the Committee's oversight when it chose to ratify the treaty in 2002. Committee members made it clear they were asking of the Vatican nothing more and nothing less than they ask of other countries that have ratified the treaty.

When the Vatican filed its initial report a decade late, it made no mention of the widespread and systemic sexual violence within the church. As has historically been the case with revelations about clergy sexual violence, it was survivors and advocates who had to force the issue to the surface. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), submitted reports which document the fact of the widespread sexual violence, the policies and practices of the Vatican that enable and foster such acts, and the depth of the harm that results.

A key feature of torture is the gravity of the harm resulting from the ill-treatment -- harm that includes both physical and mental suffering. The experiences of members of SNAP, which started out as a small support group of survivors in the United States 25 years ago and now counts 18,000 members in 79 different countries, bear out what studies have shown for some time: The harms caused by sexual violence by clergy are often severe and life-long and, in many cases, life-threatening.

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."

Considering the severity and often lifelong harm combined with the ongoing and pervasive sexual violence by clergy around the world and still-mounting evidence of cover-ups by higher-level church officials, it is striking that Pope Francis responded to earlier criticism by another UN Committee -- the Committee on the Rights of the Child -- that the church is "the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility" and that "no one else has done more." Perhaps Pope Francis should confer with the families of those who did not survive their sexual assaults by Catholic clergy and the church's treatment of the families in the aftermath, or those whose lives have been derailed by PTSD and other physical and mental illnesses as a result, before asserting something so demonstrably false and self-serving. As the commission in Australia found just last November:

The Catholic Church minimized and trivialized the problem; contributed to abuse not being disclosed, or not being responded to... ensured that the Victorian community remained uninformed of the abuse; and ensured that perpetrators were not held accountable with the tragic result being that children continued to be abused. We found that today's church leaders view the current question of abuse of children as a 'short term embarrassment', which should be handled as quickly as possible to cause the least damage to the church's standing. They do not see the problems as raising questions about the church's own culture.

Church officials attacked the recent findings of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that the church had systematically placed its own interests over the best interests of children to be free from sexual violence as "prejudiced." As it did before the Committee on the Rights of the Child in January, 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 -- not to mention the ongoing risks to children. From the beginning of the questioning, it was clear the experts saw addressing the widespread sexual violence by clergy falling squarely within the committee's scope and mission.

Lombardi was right about one thing when, in an attempt to undermine the credibility of survivors and advocates raising these concerns, he suggested we had a "strong ideological character." The representatives of SNAP and CCR who were present when the Vatican faced questioning, and those who watched from afar around the world, do indeed have a strong ideological bent -- that of being deeply and firmly committed to preventing the sexual torture of children and vulnerable adults by clergy and exposing and holding accountable those who have helped to perpetuate it.

For a detailed analysis of the UN hearing, watch our report .

Follow Pam Spees on Twitter at @PamSpees