On Wednesday the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a scathing report outlining the ways in which the Roman Catholic Church has failed to protect children from sexual abuse by priests. The report not only criticized Church leadership for failing to acknowledge the extent of the crimes, but also for failing to take measures to protect children from future abuse. What was surprising about the report was not the abuses that were mentioned — these abuses have been known to the public for decades. What was surprising was the fact that the UN said anything at all.
This is the first time that the United Nations has chosen to confront the Vatican over systematic abuse. For decades, the UN has remained quiet despite numerous waves of sexual scandals, and despite the existence of the convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Vatican signed in 1990. Why has the UN chosen to take a public stance now?
The answer, I believe, is related to Pope Francis and his more moderate, reformist mission. Let us assume that the Vatican is in the midst of a tug-of-war between conservatives and reformists. Let us also assume that the reformists have not entirely won this battle. If this is true (which I believe it is), then a strong public statement by a world organization in favor of reform could help tip the balance. Conservatives in the Vatican will win the war if they can convince enough cardinals that the Church will weather this storm and return to business as usual. But what if powerful international organizations didn’t remain quiet this time? Public condemnation by global organizations such as the UN would signal to Vatican leadership that the Church would no longer be allowed to operate beyond the law. Suddenly, it would be clear to conservatives and their potential supporters that the world had changed, and so must they.
No one really knows exactly what’s going on inside the Vatican. But when I game this out it seems clear that Kristen Sandberg (chairwoman of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child) is potentially a brilliant strategic thinker. She’s figured out how to use her position to tip the Vatican’s balance of power toward change and away from old predatory practices.