More than 250 people gathered in March at New York’s UN Church Center to urge its Secretary-General to revoke the Non-member State Permanent Observer Status of the Holy See, administrative arm of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Much has changed since 1964, when the Holy See invited itself to be a Permanent Observer,” said Mary Hunt of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual. “So much that at a minimum, the Holy See needs to take a graceful exit and focus on its own priorities including financial, criminal and ministerial problems. Leave UN business to bona fide states.”
After last year’s explosive report tracking sexual abuse by 300 priests in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses, Catholics for Human Rights say it’s time to end diplomatic and sovereign immunities shielding the Church from accountability and investigation.
The two-part event featured Hunt; Mary Anne Case, Professor of Law; and activist/theologian Virginia Saldanha; with moderators Amanda Ussak from Catholics for Choice; and Kate McElwee from the Women’s Ordination Conference. An afternoon session featured survivors of clergy abuse.
Many religious organizations partner with the UN as Non-Governmental Organizations—but not the Catholic Church. This “golf-sized parcel of land with more chairs than permanent residents” doesn’t meet the UN’s rules for statehood, lacking permanent citizens, a territory, and a government. Yet they influence laws harming women, children and LGBTs.
The Church had a chance to start reparations, but the February 2019 Summit on the Protection of Minors in the Church resulted in zero policy changes—an outrage as patterns of abuse, lack of transparency, criminal collusion and guilty verdicts proliferate.
As Hunt noted, “Catholic is not a nationality.” If the Holy See wants to continue to participate in the UN, they can do so “as one more NGO, alongside your own faith community, like Maryknoll or Pax Christi.”
No place for women in the church
As former executive secretary of the Archdiocese of Bombay’s Women’s Desk, Virginia Saldanha was deeply involved in the Church. But she found the “male interpretation of scriptures about women and gender problematic, as it denies rights…There is no channel through which the voice of women is heard in the Church.”
Unlike America, where clergy abuse is coming to light, Saldhana said, “Men never speak of this, and there are no mechanisms in place to address it.” When one Indian woman disclosed she was abused by a bishop, the Church censured her.
The Church even violates its own doctrines, as with the nine-year-old Brazilian girl impregnated with twins by her stepfather. Doctors advised abortion for her survival; the bishop subsequently excommunicated the mother and doctor, without censure to the stepfather. In other documented cases, nuns impregnated by priests are forced to have abortions.
Clergy bills itself as "experts" in humanity,’ despite that celibate priests are hardly experts on women, sex, gender and family. They disregard advice from professionals, and opinions of those with personal experience. Their 2015 Synod on the Family featured male clergymen, with no women’s groups invited, few women permitted to listen, and only several married couples to advise them. Using secular law to legislate these issues leaves women vulnerable.
But will the new Pope change things?
The election of Pope Francis provided hope that the Church might begin to treat women and children better. Instead, witness recent opposition of the Violence Against Women Act, because it references sexual orientation and gender identity. Neither will the Church support the Istanbul Convention combatting violence against women, saying it will cause “moral decay.”
Saldhana sees Pope Francis as somewhat ambivalent—a “flash in the pan who says nice things… and encourages people to speak up, but doesn’t have the wherewithal to change anything. And that’s what is insidious, and what we’re dealing with.”
“As the UN becomes more powerful, the Holy See has stepped up their work against reproductive rights,” echoed Ussak. “They’ve worked to change secular laws, and their understanding of ‘gender’ harms people.”
Women and children are those most often harmed. In an afternoon session, clergy abuse survivor and whistleblower Barbara Dorris shared her tale.
“I was a good Catholic, with six kids in parochial school,” said Dorris. “The Church was the center of our life.”
But from the age of six through her teens, Dorris was abused by her priest. The first time he called for her, Dorris proudly donned her best dress to visit the priest, who said she was evil and raped her. She showed the heartbreakingly small yellow dress she wore that day.
“I cut off my hair to look like a boy,” said Dorris. “I spent my childhood looking for someplace safe,” but the priest accosted her on the playground, in class, or simply had her mother send her over.
To keep an eye on her own six children, Dorris worked as gym teacher at their school, and soon discovered that priest was also abusive.
“I went to the pastor to tell him; that was a mistake,” said Dorris. “I called the police and [Child Protective Services], but they were no help. A lay review found the allegations not credible; several were also predators. So I got an attorney and stopped playing by Church rules. The priest was caught four times—but he’s still in the parish.”
Abuse scandals often focus on altar boys, the Church labeling it a ‘homosexual issue.’ But girls and women are abused just as often, even painted as sexual temptresses, the priests as victims.
Said Dorris, “The Pope is an absolute monarch. He could remove them publicly today and turn them over to local law enforcement. He could order bishops to obey the laws of the land, but they’re not being charged, even when they’re caught. So why would they change?”
'Time for the Church to Go'
The Holy See is delinquent in UN responsibilities, refusing to comply with the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, covering up abuse, moving abusers around, and not educating children on reporting abuse.
The March 14 letter from Catholics for Human Rights lays it out: the Catholic Church is not a state. Every day the UN allows this, they defy their own principles of equality, and are complicit in the discrimination of women, children, and LGBT individuals.