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:

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.

The "See Change" Broadside is a regular publication, emailed to supporters of The "See Change" Campaign, progressive Catholics and collegial organizations. We aim to show how the hierarchy of the Catholic church involves itself in public policy debates and, relying on sectarian religious positions, can, and does, obstruct progressive legislation. There is no copyright on this information. All we ask is that you tell people where it came from.

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