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Is the Vatican Guilty of Torture?

History has shown that the Catholic Church can be a great force for good. But it can only live up to that promise by properly addressing the clerical sex abuse scandal.

On May 23, a United Nations committee is set to publish its verdict on the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. It's hard to tell what the result is going be. But it's entirely possible that the committee will rule that the Vatican is guilty of violating international laws on torture for allowing Catholic priests to commit acts of pedophilia (and by covering up their crimes).

If the U.N. Committee Against Torture rules against the Holy See, church leaders will have only themselves to blame. Both the recently canonized John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, could have chosen to tackle the abuse allegations head-on. Instead they went to considerable effort to cover up cases of abuse, in some cases moving suspect priests away from their accusers to help them evade criminal responsibility.

The current pontiff, Francis I, has vowed to resolve the scandal appointing a commission to address past cases and implement reforms that will prevent further abuses. But this new body has been slow to get off the ground. Victims have criticized the new pope for not acting more decisively. Last month, Francis finally issued a public apology to those affected by the abuse, including a personal plea for forgiveness -- a gesture that went quite a bit farther than he'd previously been willing to.

The case currently under review by the U.N. torture panel has the potential to send the scandal into a whole new realm. A ruling against the Vatican could usher in a fresh wave of lawsuits and legal challenges. The reason: according to international law there is no statute of limitations on torture. If members of the panel deem the Holy See to be guilty of abetting torture, that could encourage the filing of allegations dating back, well, forever. Lawyers pressing the claims of abuse victims say that the Vatican, as a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, should assume full legal responsibility for the crimes committed by its priests. (The signs shown in the phone above were left by protesters outside an official inquiry in Australia examining allegations of abuse in the church there.)

Earlier this month, as part of the U.N. inquiry, the Vatican revealed that it has defrocked 848 priests who raped or molested children and punished another 2,572, as well as paying out $2.5 billion in settlements to victims since the scandal began. But this information comes late. The victims want greater accountability from the church and clear reforms that will prevent such things from happening again.

The whole story fills me with sadness -- profound sadness, above all, for the victims, many of whom will go on living lives scarred by the traumas inflicted on them by men who were supposed to be their guides in the search for salvation.

But I also feel deep melancholy about the church itself. Though I'm not a Catholic, my moonlighting work as a historian has made me deeply aware of the ways in which the church has been able to function as a unique force for good -- not only by preaching a gospel of love but also by playing a positive role on the global stage.

Consider the case of John Paul II. Critics now place much of the blame for the abuse cover-up at his feet. Many of the crimes were committed during his 26-year-papacy. His first instinct, when confronted with abuse allegations, was not to help the victims but to protect the priests -- including, most appallingly, the monstrous Marcial Maciel Degollado, a serial rapist who happened to occupy a powerful position within the church. There can be no denying that John Paul II bears personal responsibility for sustaining a pernicious culture of impunity within the Vatican.

Yet there is another story of his leadership that inspires. I wrote a book that looked, among other things, at the remarkable story of John Paul's commitment to the cause of human freedom around the world.

What we usually hear of this story is an abbreviated version that goes something like this: John Paul II was from Poland, and, like many Poles, he was a staunch anti-Communist. Once he became pope in 1978 (the first non-Italian to hold the office in 455 years), it was only natural that he would use the leverage afforded by his position to make trouble for the Russians. In this telling, his nationalism was a natural fit with his innate conservatism.

This version of the story actually misses some important nuances. First, John Paul II wasn't just a Pole; he was also an enthusiastic European, deeply devoted to postwar values of peace, social justice, and political and economic freedom. Second, during his career as a Polish priest he lived through Nazism as well as Stalinism. This biography left him with a healthy skepticism toward the excesses of nationalism, a deep contempt for dictatorship in all of its flavors, and a deep respect for the primacy of the individual. Third, though John Paul is often described as a "doctrinal conservative," it's a characterization that tends to elide his role in the Second Vatican Council, when then-Pope John XXIII embarked on far-reaching reform of the mission and institutions of the church. (He died not long after the council began.)

It's this background that explains why the first major treatise of John Paul II's papacy was Redemptor Hominis ("The Redeemer of Man"), a text that explicitly raised the defense of human rights to a central place in the life of the church. The Polish pope took this principle very seriously. During his pilgrimages to his homeland he defied the communist authorities precisely by emphasizing the inviolability of individual rights, lending immense moral authority to those who opposed a dehumanizing state. The traditions of Polish resistance to despotism were often couched in a romantic embrace of armed rebellion. In this respect, John Paul II's patriotism was profoundly untraditional: he rigorously stressed the need for non-violence.

His support for human rights wasn't restricted to Poles, or even to anti-communists. He was outspoken in his condemnation of South African apartheid. He encouraged church leaders to assist the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986 (despite the fact that President Ferdinand Marcos was a fervent convert to Catholicism). During John Paul's trip to Chile the year after that he harshly criticized Augusto Pinochet, the country's dictator, and called upon members of the church to support a democratic opening there. The pope's public upbraiding of Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner is widely regarded to have contributed to the collapse of that dictatorship as well. He was also the first world leader to use the word "genocide" to describe what was happening in Rwanda in 1994. This, in short, was the John Paul II who didn't hesitate to scold the world's most powerful people to their faces.

Indeed, it wouldn't be amiss to say that John Paul II's 26-year papacy served as an important accelerant to the late-20th-century phase of the human rights revolution -- and I believe that holds true even if one disagrees with many of the church's other teachings.

Ironically, this also serves to illuminate the magnitude of his failure, and that of his successors, when it comes to confronting the human rights disaster that was happening inside the church during that period. The world's repulsion over the sex abuse scandal reflects the general expectation that we -- or at least many of us -- would like to see the church live up to the high ideals that it espouses.

I'm not sure if the United Nations Committee Against Torture is the right place to address the Church's failings. But I also find myself wondering whether the Church is really well advised to resort to legalistic wrangling in its efforts to defend itself.

Maybe it's time for Francis to consider another course: steering the Church back towards a role as the institution that speaks with innate humility, charity, and love, and not from a position of power. We've been moved by the spectacle of Francis washing the feet of prisoners and comforting the disfigured. Maybe it's time for him to invite the victims of clerical abuse to his home, where he can assure them of his own willingness to do better. Maybe it's time for the church to demonstrate its sincere will to become the moral example the world needs.

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Democracy Lab

In a Divided Ukraine, Even Victory Over Hitler Isn’t What It Used to Be

As Russia marks the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, the chill of Crimea casts a shadow over remembrances.

The American writer William Faulkner knew what he was talking about: "History," he once wrote, "is not what was, it is." May 9 marks the day, more than any other, when memories of the old Soviet Union rise from the ashes. All over the former USSR, from Vilnius to Vladivostok, people are carrying hammer-and-sickle flags to the monuments in city parks where "eternal flames" still commemorate the more than 20 million who lost their lives in the fight against Nazi Germany. In most cases, actually, those flames no longer burn full time -- but you can bet they'll be switched on again for the sake of the last few elderly veterans who manage to show up, proudly displaying their hard-won medals on their jacket lapels. (The photo above shows today's May 9th ceremony in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.)

Yet not everyone will be celebrating, especially this year. For some, May 9 is the cornerstone of the Soviet secular religion, an intensely emotional moment when the blood sacrifice of millions is used to justify the existence of a country that no longer exists. But for many other ex-Soviet citizens, Victory Day is an occasion for mourning rather than celebration, one that marks the moment when their forbears exchanged the horrors of Nazi occupation for the brutality of Stalinism.

In most of the ex-USSR, this contested sense of history hasn't generally been the cause for major political conflicts. But the crisis in Ukraine has brought those differences to the fore, fueling worries that today's observance of the date could trigger clashes around the country -- between zealous adherents of Kiev's independence (who tend to have a positive view of the Ukrainian nationalists who battled Soviet forces during World War II) and pro-Russian activists (who regard the Red Army's victory in the "Great Patriotic War" as the ultimate validation of Soviet ideology). Their nearly irreconcilable views on 20th-century history shape the two sides' positions on the nature of Ukrainian statehood today -- and few other moments bring out the differences more sharply than May 9.

Indeed, earlier this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry registered an official complaint with the government of Austria over an incident involving a statue commemorating Red Army soldiers in Vienna that was apparently vandalized by pro-Ukrainian activists. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin traveled to Crimea, where he observed Victory Day celebrations designed to underline Russia's claims to the territory, which was a major battlefield in World War II. Meanwhile, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin opted to observe May 9 in the separatist enclave of Transnistria in Moldova -- a gesture that amounts to one huge Bronx cheer aimed at the embattled government of that tiny country, which could be next in line if Ukraine succumbs to Kremlin pressure.

The Americans and the Europeans, who tend to see the war as a black-and-white conflict between Western liberal democracy and Nazi totalitarianism, tend to forget that it was a far more complicated affair for those unfortunate countries that found themselves squeezed between the Third Reich and the USSR. In August 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed a treaty that divided up Eastern Europe between them, giving the Nazis a green light for their invasion of Poland and the myriad atrocities that followed. Yet the Balts, Poles, Romanians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians who ended up East of that dividing line, and thus under occupation by the Soviets, found little to recommend the experience. Stalin's secret police, who accompanied the arrival of the Red Army, arrested and executed tens of thousands of real and imagined opponents throughout the new territories under his control, and deported tens of thousands more, at the cost of great human suffering, to Siberia or Central Asia.

Millions of people in Soviet Ukraine had already died from the great famine there in the early 1930s, which hardly endeared the survivors to the Soviet Communist Party. That also helps to explain why some Ukrainians (as well as others from the "bloodlands," as historian Timothy Snyder describes the region ravaged by both Nazi and Soviet rule) had cause to view the German invasion in 1941, at least initially, as a welcome relief from the horrors of Stalinism.

Some even saw this as a reason to cooperate with Hitler's forces -- including those nationalist anti-Semites whose active collaboration in the Holocaust would enable Stalin's henchmen to tar all resistance to Soviet rule as "fascist" (the same way that pro-Russian forces now like to characterize all the supporters of the current interim government in Kiev as "Nazis," even though modern-day ultranationalists remain a fringe phenomenon, while a far larger group of Ukrainians have been actively supporting pro-European Union views that make a mockery of such a labeling). The memory of Stalinist terror explains why many Eastern Europeans who watched the return of the Red Army in 1944 didn't experience that moment as the "liberation" depicted in Soviet propaganda. Indeed, many of those who had survived to experience the return of Soviet forces once again found themselves subjected to the familiar policies of arrest or deportation.

Many citizens of the former USSR don't know that side of the story, of course, thanks to the selective version of history served up to them in school. But they are intimately familiar with the other story of the war symbolized by May 9: the sacrifice made by the millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians who died in the fight against Hitler.

Ask any present-day Russian about the war, and they'll immediately begin ticking off the long family casualty list. This collective memory, handed down from generation to generation, helps to explain why even a 19-year-old Russian is likely to have a surprisingly intense emotional link to the legacy of the war -- and why imagery associated with the Great Patriotic War is so tangled up in the competing views of Ukraine today. For one side, Ukraine is part of the sacred Soviet soil that Great Grandpa was fighting to liberate; for the other, Ukraine is territory that was regrettably re-conquered by the Red Army's occupiers in 1944, condemning it to another 47 years of Communist rule.

Boris Hersonsky, a political analyst in Odessa, told me during a recent visit there that one of the most important aspects of the political struggle now dividing Ukraine is the "war of symbols," many of which are intimately connected with World War II. He pointed out that pro-Ukrainian forces identify themselves with the yellow-blue flag of independent Ukraine, a central symbol for the Ukrainian nationalist movement that Stalin's secret police spent decades trying to crush. Many western Ukrainians also profess sympathy for the World War II nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fought both the Nazis and the Soviets during the war -- though there were also moments when Bandera sought tactical alliances with the Germans, allowing the Soviets, and many modern-day Russians (including Putin himself), to vilify him as a collaborator. Nonetheless, modern-day nationalists often proudly display the red-and-black flag of Bandera's UPA, which they see as a sign of the stubborn endurance of the Ukrainian national idea even under the grimmest conditions.

"For people in western Ukraine, the Red Army were occupiers, no worse than the Germans," says Hersonsky. "Eastern Ukrainians can't accept that."

Indeed, the pro-Russian forces in the East, who despise the "Banderites" as Nazi collaborators, display their loyalties by wearing the black-and-orange ribbons of St. George, a traditional Russian patriotic symbol that was revived as a symbol of victory in 1945. For that reason, this year some of the Ukrainians commemorating May 9 have chosen to drop the ribbons, donning instead the poppies often used to memorialize the dead of the world wars in Western Europe. Pro-Ukrainians have taken to referring to the wearers of the ribbons as koloradki, a mocking reference to the Colorado potato beetle, an invasive and destructive pest that boasts the same color scheme.

The intensifying political polarization within Ukraine means, though, that the differences of opinion embodied by these symbols are no joke. Last month, when one prominent pro-Russian politician showed up in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the city's recapture by Soviet forces, he was surrounded in his hotel by pro-Kiev demonstrators, who considered his visit a calculated political slight. The local authorities managed to spirit him away, avoiding what might have otherwise become a major confrontation. The horrific deaths of more than 40 pro-Russian demonstrators in an Odessa building last week in the wake of a clash between them and pro-Ukrainian groups show, however, just how easily such situations can spiral out of control. Let's hope that this year's Victory Day can be commemorated in peace -- as it should be.

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