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UN panel overstepped Vatican report on clergy child abuse: Canadian expert

A Canadian expert on Roman Catholicism says a United Nations committee overstepped its mandate in a scathing report that accused the Vatican of systematically covering up child sexual abuse by priests.

Robert Dennis, vice president of the Canadian Catholic Historical Association, said the UN panel watered down its advocacy of child sexual abuse victims by criticizing the Roman Catholic church for its doctrine on homosexuality, abortion and contraception.

Dennis said that by taking on core Catholic doctrine, the panel detracted from its examination of a serious issue facing the church — the decades-long coverups of sexual abuse by clergy in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Germany and elsewhere.

“We can’t blend these issues together. The report itself probably would have been more effective if it stayed more focused on this crucial question of child abuse,” said Dennis, also a Queen’s University professor in Kingston, Ont.

“The report itself is playing politics on social questions that the Vatican and the Roman Catholic church have a very distinct set of teachings and values on.”

Wednesday’s report said the Vatican “systematically” adopted policies that allowed priests to sexually assault tens of thousands of children over several decades. It called on the Holy See to open its files on the abuse, and on the coverup by bishops.

But the report also blasted the Vatican for its stand on homosexuality, contraception and abortion.

The committee was examining the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Holy See ratified in 1990. It subjected the Holy See to an unprecedented round of interrogation at public hearings in Geneva last month.

References to the Mount Cashel orphanage scandal, and to the 2012 conviction of a former Roman Catholic bishop in Ottawa, were among the hundreds of pages detailing international abuse cases filed with the committee in Geneva.

Dennis’s comments echoed those of the Vatican, which criticized the UN committee for straying outside the scope of its mandate.

Dennis said Catholic doctrine on those issues is a matter of religious freedom, even if it is out of step with most Western countries.

“The report itself is going after the church for positions that are long and well-founded but not necessarily related to this question of sexual abuse,” he said.

The Harper government’s ambassador of religious freedom, Andrew Bennett, declined to comment on the case.

Dennis said the church needs to do more to sanction bishops who covered up the abuse by priests under their jurisdiction.

“The bishops are crucial because they’re the local contact person on the ground. They’re that person who mediates between the priest and the hierarchy in Rome,” he said.

“And not one bishop has ever been held to account for making poor decisions regarding priests … for example moving them from one parish to another.”

The committee considered evidence about the Mount Cashel abuse scandal in Newfoundland and Labrador, included in the hundreds of pages that victims groups tabled for the hearings.

The committee considered testimonials from victims as well as summaries of government inquiries and court cases from various countries.

The Winter Commission on the Mount Cashel scandal had similarities to a royal commission in Ireland that found that child victims of abuse were “blamed and seen as corrupted” and punished for the sexual activity complained about, said a 36-page report of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

“Similarly, the Winter Commission in Canada found that ‘victims of child sexual abuse have been wrongly blamed for their own victimization’.”

The report also cited the Hughes Commission, another Mount Cashel inquiry, which said that “the evidence of sexual violence adduced at the hearings was of such a nature as to shock profoundly the conscience and susceptibilities of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, N.L., which was operated by Ireland’s Christian Brothers, was shut down in 1990. The Catholic order operated schools in the U.S. in addition to the St. John’s orphanage, where several former staff were eventually convicted of sex crimes.

The documents also referred to the “notable” 2012 conviction of Raymond Lahey, a former bishop, who received a 15-month jail term after pleading guilty to importing child pornography into Canada.

“According to prosecutors, Lahey’s laptop contained hundreds of photos of children ranging from ‘soft core’ to depictions of torture. Lahey, who admitted to an addiction to child pornography, had in the previous year overseen a multimillion-dollar settlement for clerical sexual abuse victims in his diocese before he was charged,” the report said.

One month before he was arrested with that laptop, Lahey helped broker a multimillion-dollar sex abuse settlement involving 125 people in a Nova Scotia diocese, where he previously served as a bishop.