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Spotlight Report

Assembly to debate goals for children

By Elizabeth A. Neuffer, Globe Staff, 5/8/2002

UNITED NATIONS - The UN today convenes its first-ever General Assembly session on improving conditions for children, with disputes over sex education expected to dominate the three-day meeting. Some advocates said they will also urge the assembly to address sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

Although about 70 heads of state were scheduled to arrive this morning, an accord had not been reached last night on a key document. The United States, the Holy See, and Arab nations were still battling Canada, Latin American, and European countries over how to define an adolescent's right to health and sex education.

Althought questions of sexual abuse by priests or other religious authorities are not on the official program, some Catholic activists say they plan to press the United Nations to demand an apology from the Holy See for its handling of the scandal. The Vatican has permanent observer status here.

''We want to hold the church accountable,'' said Francis Kissling, president of Catholics For a Free Choice. ''If the Vatican wants to be part of the UN, then it must be accountable to the UN.''

Catholics for a Free Choice is an advocacy group that has long opposed the Catholic bishops' stands on issues such as abortion and has campaigned to end the Vatican's permanent observer status at the UN.

Kissling said the group would ask the UN committee overseeing the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child to consider whether the Holy See, which is a party to the treaty, has violated the pact. A spokesman for the Vatican mission to the UN declined to comment yesterday.

The UN special session is intended to set goals for countries to achieve on behalf of the world's children, as well as to review progress made on goals set a decade ago.

''This is the first time ever that the UN will come together and focus on issues concerning children and young people,'' Carol Bellamy, head of UNICEF, told reporters recently. ''If we want to overcome poverty and the instability it breeds, we must start by investing in our young people.''

A recent report by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan concluded that there has not been enough investment made on behalf of children. An estimated 150 million children remain malnourished, the report said. Even in the richest countries, one in six children live below their nation's poverty line.

Other issues on the agenda include child labor and the use of children as soldiers. But questions of sex education are expected to dominate the discussion.

One key battle will center around the document that the assembly hopes to adopt Friday. The measure will contain as many as 21 goals for countries to achieve on behalf of children, such as reducing infant and child mortality or improving access to clean water.

The United States, whose delegation will be lead by Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of health and human services, opposes the proposal's many references to the 1990 treaty, contending that it infringed parental rights. The United States and Somalia are the only two countries that have not ratified the treaty.

A second area of dispute concerns language spelling out an adolescent's right to sex education. The Bush administration, supported by the Holy See and many Arab nations and groups, is pushing to ensure that the final UN document encourages abstinence and that access to health services does not include the right to an abortion.

Many Latin American and European nations, as well as women's and children's advocacy groups, support a broader definition of adolescents' rights to health and sex education.

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 5/8/2002.
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