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Vatican denies obligation to uphold children's rights in the Church (2013)

The Vatican signed the United Nations treaty to protect children with a reservation that says it can only be applied in line with Church teaching. But when that made it sound as if this permitted worldwide child abuse, the Vatican changed direction. Now it says its signature only commits it to protect the children in the (virtually childfree!) Vatican city. 

Back in 2002 the clerical abuse scandal was only beginning to be reported in the papers. However, already then Catholics for Choice, arguably the most effective human rights organisation monitoring the Vatican, was drawing attention to its international obligations. Catholics for Choice pointed out in a detailed report how the Vatican had failed to protect children, even though it had promised to do so by signing the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child. [1]

Of the United Nation’s nine core international human rights treaties, the Vatican has signed and ratified only two, and even one of those, with reservations. This last is the 1989  Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), where the Vatican has made three reservations. These have caused concern among the human rights experts who drew up the Convention.

The essence of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is that “Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights.” [2] Unfortunately the Vatican has objected to this treaty in a way which can help keep children as property of the parents and which dooms many to lives of deprivation, by insisting on unlimited reproduction. 

Reservations due to Vatican stand on both children and rights

Instead of the child, the Vatican focuses on the family. In 1980 it issued a Charter of the Family, meaning, of course only one which conforms to Church doctrine. A Maltese Monsignor described it as “an indissoluble marriage [...] between a man and a woman, [...] and open to new life.” He added, “Divorce is not a human right, and in Malta, it is not even a civil right.” [3]

And not only does the Vatican appear to be unwilling to put the interests of the child first, it also equivocates on the very idea of a child’s rights. In line with longstanding Church doctrine, Bishop Tabet, representing the Vatican, informed the Committee of the CRC that the rights of the child “emanate” from the fact that he was “created in God’s image”. In other words, rights are not utterly independent of anything else, but are derived from God (whose earthly representative is the Pope....) And he added, “To ensure effective protection of its rights, the Holy See considers that the child can not be dissociated from the context of the family”. [4]

This sounds like a covert rejection of the ideals behind the Convention Rights of the Child and it would explain the equally covert way of avoiding being bound by it through its reservations and declaration.

What are reservations?

Reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs) are self-exemptions from some of the obligations set forth in the treaty. There are two competing views on RUDs. 

From one perspective, RUDs are a legitimate, perhaps even desirable, means of accounting for cultural, religious, or political value diversity across nations. Reservations, understandings, and declarations are set up by those countries that take human rights seriously, foremost the liberal democracies, while other countries need not bother because they have no intention of complying anyway. From the competing second account, however, RUDs are regarded with great concern, if not hostility. This is because of the supposed character of human rights as universally applicable, which is seen as being undermined if countries can opt out of their obligations. [5]

The Vatican’s interpretation

In 1990 when it entered the treaty, the Vatican made three reservations to the CRC and one declaration about it. As can be seen below, the first reservation is to require the unworkable method of family planning which is popularly known as "Vatican roulette". This effectively dooms many children to grow up in poverty in large families where young girls may be subject to sexual exploitation, (sometimes in order to eat), and as a result become child mothers themselves. The Vatican’s second reservation serves to keep children firmly under parental religious control until they reach 18. The third reservation effectively requires that everything in the UN Treaty be in conformity with Church doctrine. It does this in a convoluted way which hides the meaning, by saying that the CRC must be applied in a way compatible with the Vatican City State’s “sources of objective law”, which are principally Canon Law. [6] And finally, the declaration amounts to a ban on abortion and also on whatever methods of family planning the Vatican chooses to define as such.


      a) [The Holy See] interprets the phrase `Family planning education and services' in article 24.2, to mean only those methods of family planning which it considers morally acceptable, that is, the natural methods of family planning.
       b) [The Holy See] interprets the articles of the Convention in a way which safeguards the primary and inalienable rights of parents, in particular insofar as these rights concern education (articles 13 and 28), religion (article 14), association with others (article 15) and privacy (article 16).
       c) [The Holy See declares] that the application of the Convention be compatible in practice with the particular nature of the Vatican City State and of the sources of its objective law (art. 1, Law of 7 June 1929, n. 11 [as amended by the Law of 1 October 2008, N. LXXI]) and, in consideration of its limited extent, with its legislation in the matters of citizenship, access and residence.


[...] The Holy See recognizes that the Convention represents an enactment of principles previously adopted by the United Nations, and once effective as a ratified instrument, will safeguard the rights of the child before as well as after birth, as expressly affirmed in the `Declaration of the Rights of the Child' [Res. 136 (XIV)] and restated in the ninth preambular paragraph of the Convention.  The Holy See remains confident that the ninth preambular paragraph will serve as the perspective through which the rest of the Convention will be interpreted, in conformity with article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 23 May 1969.[...] [7]

The concerns of the CRC Committee over the Vatican's reservations (1995)

The experts who had drawn up the CRC were so concerned by the tenor of the Vatican's objections that they even suggested it withdraw them. [8] They listed three areas of in particular:

7. The Committee is concerned about reservations entered by the Holy See to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in particular with respect to the full recognition of the child as a subject of rights.

8. The Committee is concerned that discrimination between children may arise in Catholic schools and institutions, in particular with regard to gender.

9. The Committee is concerned at the insufficient attention paid to the promotion of education of children on health matters, the development of preventive health care, guidance for parents and family planning education and services, in the light of the provisions of the Convention.

The Committee's concerns were further underlined by their recommendations, which included these pointed suggestions: 

13. The Committee recommends that the position of the Holy See with regard to the relationship between articles 5 and 12 of the Convention be clarified. In this respect, it wishes to recall its view that the rights and prerogatives of the parents may not undermine the rights of the child as recognized by the Convention, especially the right of the child to express his or her own views and that his or her views be given due weight.

14. It also recommends that the spirit of the Convention and the principles set forth therein, in particular the principles of non-discrimination, of the best interests of the child and of respect for the views of the child, be fully taken into account in the conduct of all the activities of the Holy See and of the various Church institutions and organizations dealing with the rights of the child. 

During the informal questioning of the Vatican representative the experts on the committee expressed scepticism. [9] Representative of the concerns they expressed was "that, contrary to the philosophy of the Convention, the child was not regarded by the Holy See as a full subject of his or her rights. Furthermore, the principle of non-discrimination was not fully reflected in the Holy See’s policies and activities". [10]

Amnesty International put it more frankly, concluding that “The Holy See did not sufficiently comply with its international obligations relating to the protection of children.” [11]

It seems to have been fully clear to these experts on children's rights that the Vatican had signed the treaty only to effectively opt out of it through its reservations. However, as a noted professor of human rights law observes, the Vatican did this for a purpose: 

The Holy See has ratified the Convention [on the Rights of the Child] with a series of reservations and declarations, one of which is remarkably similar in scope to the “Islamic” reservations.

An example of such "Islamic" reservations is furnished by Mauritania. It has the highest proportion of people in slavery in the world, with women regularly raped by their masters in order to increase the number of slaves and therefore the owners' wealth. Yet it has signed a human rights treaty to protect women (CEDAW), by adding the same two provisos used in Vatican reservations. It entered a reservation stating that it would observe only those articles that comply with Sharia Law and the Mauritanian Constitution. [12]

He continues:

The Holy See declares “that the application of the Convention [should] be compatible in practice with the particular nature of the Vatican City State and of the sources of its objective law.” [13] It would appear from such a reservation that the Holy See does not really expect the Convention to apply to the Vatican City territory. Rather, its cynical purpose in ratifying seems to be to enhance its credibility in insisting upon an anti-abortion interpretation of Article 6 of the Convention. Ratification also permits the Holy See, which has an international legal personality but which is not a “state,” to participate (at no real cost) as a “state party” in designating members of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. [14]

Here the Vatican seems to be trying to advance its own political goals, rather than the welfare of the world's children.

Almost a quarter of a century after the Vatican first formally pledged to protect children, the Committee was still dissatisfied with the response of the US authorities to the widespread clerical abuse in that country, and “the lack of measures taken by [them] to properly investigate cases and prosecute those accused”. The Committee said it was “deeply concerned at information of sexual abuse committed by clerics and leading members of certain faith-based organizations and religious institutions on a massive and long-term scale amounting to sexual slavery or servitude of children”. [15]

Finally Vatican admits its signature only applies to its tiny enclave

In 2013, when questioned closely by the UN committee on the Rights of the Child, the Vatican made an amazing contention -- that its signature only applied to the few city blocks in Rome which make up the Vatican "state". In Vatican-speak it "implements" the Rights of the Child in its own territory, but only "encourages or promotes" them outside. [#20] (And, when it comes to gender, even that gets skewed, for it says that what it "promotes" is not equality, but "complementarity between the two sexes." [#20])

Furthermore it refused to incorporate human rights legislation into the laws of its enclave.

15. it is not the practice of the Holy See to enact or promulgate one single piece of legislation to incorporate an entire international human rights convention into the laws of VCS. Rather, the Holy See’s approach is to ensure that the legislation, policies and practices comply with the human rights treaty.

In other words, no official commitment to a human rights convention, thank you. Instead we will monitor our own compliance. And the Vatican only agreed to comply with "authentic human rights" ( #7, #11 and #22 ), in other words, ones which don't conflict with Church doctrine. This appears to mean: We will follow our own rules and police ourselves.

When asked about its response to the torture of children in the Church-run Magdalene laundries in Ireland, [16] it retreated into its little state. It declared "The Holy See, as a Sovereign subject of international law, is obliged to respect the duty of non-intervention into the domestic affairs of other States concerning alleged crimes against children...." [#8.2 and repeated in #12.2]

Even a former editor of a Catholic weekly rejected

the feeble nicety that the Holy See can only be held to account by the United Nations for what goes on in the limited territory of the Vatican city-state. Their argument, that they only have spiritual rather than juridical authority over the rest of the church, is deeply unconvincing to most outsiders. Religious superiors are bound by an oath of obedience to the pope, so there is a clear line of institutional accountability... [17]

Even stranger, but totally in line with the Vatican's urge to duck responsibility, it actually professed not to understand what the UN committee meant when it referred to the Church's "own institutions". [#10.3] We know that Church lawyers have been telling priests that to offer an apology was to admit responsibility for damages. [18] (This is why, for instance, an American archbishop apologised not for what his priests had done to little boys, but for the "indignation" that people felt. No one can get awarded damages for indignation. [19]) And, now this legal caution even prevents them from acknowledging the worldwide network of Catholic establishments and admitting that the Vatican has its "own institutions"!

The UN committee charged with safeguarding children was not impressed. It expected the Vatican, as a signatory, to take responsibility for abuse perpetrated by officials and institutions under Vatican control. [20]

And even more amazing was the response of Pope Francis who echoed the Vatican's customary reaction to the abuse scandal, implying that it amounted to persecution, [21] “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No one else has done more. Yet the church is the only one to have been attacked.” [22] 


Text of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 

Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 12, The right of the child to be heard, (2009) 

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: Reporting process

Holy See, “Initial Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography”,

Holy See, “Second Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the Convention on the rights of the child",  (no date, according to Amnesty International it was submitted in May 2010

Committee on the Rights of the Child, “Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography: Concluding observations on the second periodic report of the United States of America, adopted by the Committee at its sixty-second session (14 January–1 February 2013)”, p. 11, # 35.

Holy See. Written replies by the Holy See to the List of Issues (CRC/C/VAT/Q/2) prepared by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in connection with the consideration of the Combined Second, Third and Fourth Periodic Reports of the Holy See (CRC/C/VAT/2). November 2013. 


1. The Holy See and the Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Shadow Report, Catholics for (a Free) Choice, September 2002. 

2. “Convention on the Rights of the Child: Frequently asked questions”. 

3. Pro-Vicar General [see Canon 420], Monsignor Anton Gouder at a seminar in Malta marking the 25th anniversary of the Charter of the Rights of the Family. “Commemoration of the Charter of the Family”, Malta Independent, [c. 28 October 2005].

4. Bishop Paul Fouad Tabet, Committee on the Rights of the Child, Tenth session, Summary record of the 256th meeting, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 14 November 1995, #4. To access this see footnote 8 below.

5. Eric Neumayer, “Qualified Ratification: Explaining Reservations to International Human Rights Treaties”, Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 36 (June 2007), p. 398. 

6. For the “sources of [the Vatican City State's] objective law”, see Article 56, p. 20 of:

Holy See, “Initial Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography”, (no date, according to Amnesty International it was submitted in May 2010

7. Below the list of countries is the list of “Declarations and Reservations”: 

8. The CRC Committee's 1995 response to the Vatican's Initial State Report of 2 March 1994: Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Holy See, U.N. Doc. CRC/C/15/Add.46 (1995). In PDF format here:,CRC,,VAT,3ae6aec910,0.html 

10. In the spirit of the final document of the World Conference on Human Rights, the Committee wishes to encourage the State party to consider reviewing its reservations to the Convention with a view to withdrawing them.

9. They can be found by conducting a seach at For "Convention" choose "CRC"; for "Country", choose "Holy See" and for "Type" choose "Summary Record", before hitting SEARCH to get to the two documents (under "F"). The first is a record (in French) of the morning session of 14 November 1995 and the second (in English) of the afternoon one.

10. Youri Kolosov, [UN] Committee on the rights of the child, Tenth session, Summary Record of the 225th meeting, 14 November 1995, p. 7.

11.  Amnesty International, Annual Report 2011: Vatican,

12. "Mauritania", The Global Slavery Index, 2013.

13. A list of reservations by all states: Convention on the Rights of the Child”, (20 November 1989), Declarations and Reservations (as of 18 May 2010), Holy See.

14. William A. Schabas, “Reservations to the Convention on the Rights of the Child”, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 478-79

15. Committee on the Rights of the Child, “Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography: Concluding observations on the second periodic report of the United States of America, adopted by the Committee at its sixty-second session (14 January–1 February 2013)”, p. 11, # 35.

16. “Ireland's Magdalene laundries scandal must be laid to rest”, Guardian, 2011-06-08.

17. Paul Vallely, “Vatican Missteps and U.N. Blunders”, New York Times, 2014-02-11.

18. “Sorry seems to be the hardest word: No Catholic Church apology to sex abuse victims”, The Daily Telegraph, 2013-12-11.

19. “Minn. archbishop grieves, issues apology over clergy sex abuse”, CNA, 2013-12-17.

20. Laurie Goodstein, “U.N. Panel Criticizes the Vatican Over Sexual Abuse”, New York Times, 2014-02-06. 
John Hooper, “Vatican tries to draw line under clerical sex abuse scandals at UN hearing”, Guardian, 2014-05-05.

21. Daniel Flynn, “Vatican sees bid to tarnish Church amid abuse row”, Reuters, 2010-03-16.

22. Clyde Haberman,  “The Fight to Reveal Abuses by Catholic Priests”, New York Times, 2014-03-30.

Research contributed by Paul W. Stevenson’s report for the National Secular Society,
17 November 2009

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