The "See Change" Broadside #3
April 9, 2001
European Parliament censures Vatican
Following reports of the sexual abuse of nuns carried out by priests in as many as 23 countries, members of the European Parliament passed an emergency motion censuring the Vatican. The non-executive resolution, "Responsibility of the Vatican in Regard to the Violation of Human Rights by Catholic Priests," was passed by 65 votes to 49 with six abstentions on Thursday, April 5. The motion strongly condemned all violations of women's rights and acts of sexual violence and requested that the Vatican "seriously examine every indication of sexual abuse committed in the heart of its organizations ... [and] re-establish women in their posts in the religious hierarchy, who were removed from their responsibilities because they called the attention of their superiors to these abuses." It called for all those responsible to be brought to justice and removed from office. The Holy See was also asked to cooperate with any judicial inquiry. (European Parliament, Daily Notebook, April 5, 2001.)
Media outlets around the world ran news stories reporting on the sexual misconduct by Catholic priests, which ranged from rape to misuse of power by convincing sisters to engage in sexual intercourse. While news reports focused on incidents in Africa and their relationship to priests' fear that sex with women other than nuns would put them at risk of contracting AIDS, the original reports named 23 countries, including the US, Italy, Ireland, Brazil and India, where abuse is alleged to have taken place.
The abuses were first reported in a detailed article in the National Catholic Reporter by John Allen and Pamela Schaeffer. Their report was based on five reports dating back to 1994 prepared by members of Catholic religious orders. A day after the story broke, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, a UK-based Catholic aid agency, confirmed that in 1995 it made the Vatican aware of the most detailed report on the problem.
The details of the reports are harrowing. One nun gave the example of a priest who brought a sister whom he had impregnated for an abortion. The nun died during the procedure and the priest subsequently officiated at the requiem Mass. Also cited is the case of a mother superior who repeatedly complained to her local bishop that priests in the diocese had impregnated 29 of her nuns. The bishop, according to the report, subsequently relieved her of her duties.
While the Vatican accepted the allegations that nuns suffered sexual abuse by priests, it claimed the problem is a limited one, and chose to emphasize the "often heroic" fidelity of the large majority of clergy and those in religious orders. The Vatican's official spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said the problem was "known and restricted to a limited geographical area."
In an opinion piece released last week, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, pointed out that the reports and the Vatican's reaction to them are not the first time that the Vatican has shown itself to be insensitive to the problems of violence against women and rape and pregnancy, especially in relation to international public policies that would serve to protect women from violence:
- In 1993, the pope called on women who had been raped during the conflict in Bosnia to "accept the enemy" into them, and to make him the "flesh of their own flesh." The pope asked women "to transform an act of violence into an act of love and welcome."
- In 1998, during the debate over setting up the International Criminal Court, the Vatican strove to exclude "forced pregnancy" from a proposed list of war crimes. The Vatican expressed concern over the inclusion of the term because of its fear that it could be used to oppose laws prohibiting abortion that exist in many countries around the world. The Vatican's campaign failed.
- In 1999, the Vatican used its position at the United Nations to condemn the provision of emergency contraception to women who had been raped during the conflict in Kosovo. The vice-president of the Vatican's Academy for Life, Elio Sgreccia, said the use of emergency contraception was an "abortion."
- The Vatican withdrew its annual contribution to UNICEF, the United Nations children's fund, in 1996, because the fund had endorsed a health manual for refugee populations that mentioned emergency contraception as an appropriate intervention for refugee women who had been raped. The Vatican issued a thinly veiled threat regarding UNICEF, saying it would inform Catholic groups that reconsideration regarding their participation in UNICEF fundraising activities might be appropriate.
- Within the church, one of the most shocking examples of the Vatican's inability to send a clear and unambiguous message that violence against women will not be tolerated was the 1994 beatification of a woman who was considered saintly because in the face of repeated violent abuse by her husband, she chose to stay in the marriage rather than violate the sacrament of marriage by leaving.
Kissling went on to say that "the Vatican doesn't get it. Women are tired of 'nuance' in the face of sexual, emotional and physical abuse. No more 'shooting the messenger' by claiming that talking about such abuse runs the risk of provoking racism and scapegoating Africa and Africans. No more blaming the victims by claiming that the problem is the low level of education of African religious. What women deserve from the Vatican is a clear and unambiguous condemnation of both the personal and systemic failures that contributed to such outrageous violations of human dignity."
Kissling continued, "Moreover, the world community, including leaders in government and in non-governmental agencies, must not be silenced from condemning such atrocities by the inevitable charge that criticizing the church, highlighting its shortcomings and demanding accountability is Catholic bashing. The only bashing being done in this instance is that done to nuns and other women by church leaders."
The full National Catholic Reporter article is available online here.
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