Holy See

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Persistent violations




Legally distinct from but acting as the international diplomatic entity for the Vatican City State, the Holy See is generally recognised as a sovereign entity with full legal personality and analogous to a State despite lacking a defined territory or permanent population. A member or observer of many international bodies, including UN agencies, it is led by the incumbent Pope and governed by the Roman Curia (the central administrative body), drawn from the senior ranks of the Catholic Church. As the central body of the Catholic Church, the Holy See’s most pressing human rights complaint has been the continuing revelations of child abuse within its religious institutions and the accusations of a concerted effort by church officials to conceal these violations.


The Holy See is the unified government of the Catholic Church, which operates from the Vatican City, a sovereign enclave within Rome. The territory of the City is limited to 0.44 square kilometres, making the country the smallest in the world, though the Holy See also has sovereign territorial rights over 23 sites in Rome and in five other Italian cities.

Population and language

Only 450 people have Vatican citizenship though a further 350 have permission to reside there, either temporarily or permanently, without citizenship.[1] The country's official language is Latin, though business is also conducted in Italian, English, French and Spanish.

History and politics

The modern day Vatican city is built on what the Roman's called the Vatican Hills, the site of the Roman Emporer Caligula's private circus, and the the location of some of the earliest Christian martyrdoms. Throughout the middle ages and for hundreds of years thereafter, the Papacy held control over the territorial Papal States as well as exercising the spiritual authority of the Church, a position it held well into the 19th century. With the unification of Italy in the 1870s, however, the Holy See was displaced as the former Papal States and Rome were annexed as part of the newly formed Italy. It was not until the Lateran Pact of 1929 that the Holy See was settled in the newly sovereign State at the Vatican City.

The Holy See, which refers to the government of the Catholic Church as opposed to the territory that is governed, is under the leadership of the Pope. The Pope governs the Church through “the Roman Curia”, which is in effect the Vatican Civil Service and is divided into thematic mandates. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone holds the position of Secretary of State (the equivalent of Prime Minister), while Archbishop Dominique Mamberti holds the office of Secretary for Relations with States (the equivalent of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs).

Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger, took office as Pope, and therefore head of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy See, in April 2005 following the death of Pope John Paul II. Prior to his election to the Papacy, Cardinal Ratzinger had built a reputation as a conservative within the Church, with uncompromising views on birth control, sexuality and euthanasia.[2]


The Holy See is economically unusual, in that it does not operate an economy based on trade, commerce and industry in the manner of other sovereign states. Economic comparators such as GDP, annual growth and inflation cannot be derived from the State's activities, rather the State is funded by the donations of 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, museum admission charges and the sale of publications. L'Instituto per le Opere Religiose (The Institute for Religious Works) acts as the national bank.

Media and civil society

Vatican Radio, “the Pope's Voice”, broadcasts to a global audience as well as delivering news through its website in more than 30 languages.[3] In 2011 Vatican Radio was ordered to pay damages to the residents of the Cesano area of Rome over its output of electro-magnetic radiation, which allegedly raised the rate of childhood leukaemia in residents.[4] L'Osservatore Romano, the semi-official Vatican newspaper, also publishes daily.

Human rights and children's rights

The prevalence of child abuse within the Catholic Church has been perhaps the most serious and high profile child rights issue in relation to the Holy See. Reports have emerged, and continue to emerge, of widespread abuse throughout the world[5] and that not only did the Church act inadequately in responding to reports of abuse, but that the Pope as former head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (which is responsible for responding to child abuse cases) was personally at fault for the inadequate response.[6] The Vatican broke the long held taboo on addressing its record on child abuse in 2010 when the Pope issued a personal apology to Irish victims of sexual abuse within the Church, but child abuse support groups were critical of the Pope's failure to accept blame for what they viewed as “a deliberate policy of the Catholic Church to protect sex offenders, thereby endangering children”.[7] Amnesty International has noted that the Pope has acknowledged abuses in Ireland, Malta and the United Kingdom, but has been critical of the absence of an obligation to report cases to civil authorities for criminal investigation.[8]

The Holy See has ratified a number of UN human rights treaties, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but has not reported to the Committee on the Rights of the Child.[9]


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