“I would like to strongly declare that we must all commit ourselves with clarity and courage so that every human person, especially children, who are among the most vulnerable, be always defended and protected.” (Pope Francis, May 5, 2013)
Disclaimer: the author is not taking sides in relation to the guilt or innocence of the individual mentioned in the news reports. It simply lays out some thoughts on a dangerous social phenomenon (sexual abuse of children) and on a constructive way to deal with such reports, now and in the future.
There is a tendency in Lebanon to be defensive when dealing with “negative press” in relation to one’s religious community or political party. A recent report about a Lebanese priest’s conviction of sexual abuse of children (henceforth: the Case) in France in June 2013 was met with a similar defensive mindset. Obviously, this defensive stance was in reaction to (or in parallel with) those who posted the report on Facebook and other social media outlets as a confirmation of the prevalence of such practices in Lebanon.
But what is the real issue at stake here? And should this whole affair be considered an internal matter of relevance to the Church only?
When dealing with news reports about children, the framework for any discussion should be based upon the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, ratified by Lebanon). The Convention takes “due account of the importance of the traditions and cultural values of each people for the protection and harmonious development of the child.” But its overriding principle is clear in that “In all actions concerning children…the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
Article 19 of the CRC deals with violence against children (that includes sexual abuse) and it is clear that the state has a duty to take protective measures, as well as “follow-up of instances of child maltreatment …and, as appropriate, for judicial involvement.” Furthermore, in a 2006 Report of the independent expert for the United Nationsstudy on violence against children, it was emphasized that “there can be no compromise in challenging violence against children. Children’s uniqueness — their potential and vulnerability, their dependence on adults — makes it imperative that they have more, not less, protection from violence..”And the responsibility lies on all:
“The core message of the Study is that no violence against children is justifiable; all violence against children is preventable. There should be no more excuses. Member States must act now with urgency to fulfill their human rights obligations and other commitments to ensure protection from all forms of violence. While legal obligations lie with States, all sectors of society, all individuals, share the responsibility of condemning and preventing violence against children and responding to child victims. None of us can look children in the eye, if we continue to approve or condone any form of violence against them.”
Even in a country like Lebanon where any issue takes on a larger sectarian dimension, Church officials should be open to the larger public taking an interest in the Case. Indeed, the Church must seize this opportunity to set a much-needed example of humility, self-criticism, and openness. Such a response would be in the spirit of Pope Francis’ acclaimed “closer to the ground” demeanor at the start of his tenure as new Pope of the Catholic Church.
In fact, the Pope himself had indicated on April 5, 2013 (in an audience with the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) that the Congregation, “continuing along the lines set by Benedict XVI, [should] act decisively with regard to cases of sexual abuse, first of all by promoting measures for the protection of minors, as well as in offering assistance to those who have suffered abuse, carrying out due proceedings against the guilty, and in the commitment of bishops' conferences to formulate and implement the necessary directives in this area that is so important for the Church's witness and credibility. The Holy Father assured that victims of abuse are present in a particular way in his prayers for those who are suffering.”
A month later, on May 5 2013, the Pope had noted:
A special greeting goes today to the “Meter” Association on the National Day for Child Victims of Violence. And this offers me the occasion to turn my thoughts to those who have suffered and are suffering from abuse. I would like to assure them that they are present in my prayers, but I would like to strongly declare that we must all commit ourselves with clarity and courage so that every human person, especially children, who are among the most vulnerable, be always defended and protected.
In the event of a guilty verdict, the Church must show humility in acknowledging the wrongdoing of one of its well-known representatives. The wrongful acts against children in particular must be condemned, without even a hint of justification or defence of the wrongdoer. It would be an opportunity for the Church to show that it is serious when it preaches that all human beings are sinners in need of salvation, and that it remains vulnerable to sin – even at the highest levels.
Children are the victims in this case and should be treated as a vulnerable group in need of constant protection and safeguards by the state and caregivers. In this regard, introducing children to their rights and the need for constant skepticism and non-acceptance of beliefs and opinions simply on the basis of authority would contribute to the development of a critical mind that is able to defend itself against wrongdoing, especially when the perpetrator enjoys a certain aura of authority in the family and society.
The current debate will hopefully have an impact on parents of victims (past and future) who either do not believe their kids or decide they cannot do anything about it – or are persuaded that it is better to cover things up for the “common good” or the “reputation” of the organization or religion.
If adult victims often do not speak up after rape and sexual harassment takes place in different settings, how would one expect kids to have the courage to speak up and parents to file a lawsuit against a powerful or influential perpetrator? One solution would be for the church (and other religious and state institutions obviously) to set up a confidential mechanism for complaints from children and adults who claim to have been assaulted as kids. While this is a subject for a much wider discussion, its importance cannot be overstated and was one of the “overarching recommendations” to State parties to the CRC by the mentioned UN 2006 independent expert report:
Create accessible and child-friendly reporting systems and services:
104. I recommend that States should establish safe, well-publicized, confidential and accessible mechanisms for children, their representatives and others to report violence against children. All children, including those in care and justice institutions, should be aware of the existence of mechanisms of complaint. Mechanisms such as telephone helplines, through which children can report abuse, speak to a trained counsellor in confidence and ask for support and advice should be established and the creation of other ways of reporting violence through new technologies should be considered.”
One hopes that the debate in Lebanon focuses on the rights of the child and for adequate measures to prevent violence and maltreatment, as well as assisting victims as they deal with effects of abuse. Needless to say, such a focus remains relevant even if the recent reports turn out to be baseless.
The reports of the convicted priest came as a shock to many believers. But the opportunity must be seized to deal openly and courageously with certain social phenomena covertly pervasive in society, and definitely not just in the Church.
At the end of the day, the primary concern should be – in Pope Francis’ words – “to commit ourselves with clarity and courage so that … children, who are among the most vulnerable, be always defended and protected.” This is also in line with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s Comment that“The right of children to have their best interests be a primary consideration in all matters involving or affecting them must be respected, especially when they are victims of violence, as well as in all measures of prevention.”
Halim Shebaya holds an L.L.M. in Public International Law. He was a part-time instructor at LAU and has worked for a number of international organizations in Lebanon, including UNICEF, and the Human Rights Law Center at the University of Nottingham.
 Article 3,CRC.
 CRC, Article 19: 1. States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.
2. Such protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment described heretofore, and, as appropriate, for judicial involvement.
 UNSG Report, page 5.
Ibid., Page 24.
 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/angelus/2013/documents/papa-francesco_regina-coeli_20130505_en.html; for the video see https://www.youtube.com/embed/6IYxdEDgaEQ?version=3&f=user_uploads&app=youtube_gdata&wmode=transparent&rel=0.
 CRC Committee General comment No. 13 (2011), “The right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence.”
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.