Vatican responds to UN panel’s sharp criticism of sex abuse scandal

Roman Catholic Church acknowledges it has been slow to act but insists it is now committed to facing crisis

The Vatican's U.N. ambassador, Monsignor Silvano Tomasi, left, and former Vatican chief prosecutor of clerical sexual abuse Charles Scicluna on Thursday in Geneva.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

The Vatican came under sharp criticism from a United Nations committee in Geneva on Thursday for its handling of the global priest sex-abuse scandal that has tarnished the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church and drawn accusations that it purposefully hid the rapes of thousands of children by protecting pedophile priests.

The Vatican, now facing its most intense public grilling over the allegations, acknowledged at the hearing that it had been slow to act, but insisted that it was now committed to facing the crisis. 

"The Holy See gets it," Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's former sex-crimes prosecutor, told the committee. "Let's not say 'too late' or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently."

The Holy See is recognized by international law as a sovereign entity headed by the pope.

Scicluna also encouraged prosecutors to take action against anyone who obstructs justice — a suggestion that bishops, who moved priests from diocese to diocese so they could avoid prosecution, should be held accountable.

Scicluna's comments came in response to questioning by the committee over the Holy See's failure to abide by terms of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty that calls for signatories to take all appropriate measures to keep children from harm.

The committee's main human rights investigator, Sara Oviedo, was particularly tough, pressing the Vatican on the ways abusive priests were frequently transferred rather than turned over to police. Given the church's "zero tolerance" policy, she asked, why were there "efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases?"

What's at issue?

Despite the emphatic questions, some victims' advocacy groups told Al Jazeera there was "no force behind this committee." 

"They'll ask them some questions and they'll expose them and they can embarrass them, but they can't really force them to do anything. But they certainly can expose the truth, and I think that when people start to see that the Vatican has hidden all of these charges, there's going to be some backlash," said David Lorenz of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

The Holy See ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and submitted its first implementation report in 1994, but then didn't provide progress reports for nearly two decades. It submitted one in 2012 only after coming under criticism following the 2010 explosion of child sex-abuse cases in Europe and beyond.

Victims' groups and human rights organizations teamed up to press the U.N. committee to challenge the Holy See on its abuse record.

The Holy See has long insisted that it wasn't responsible for the crimes of priests committed around the world, saying priests aren't employees of the Vatican but are rather citizens of countries where they reside and subject to local law enforcement. It has maintained that bishops were responsible for the priests in their care, not the pope.

But victims' groups and human rights organizations provided the U.N. committee with the Vatican's own documentation showing how it discouraged bishops from reporting abusers to police. 

Test of Pope Francis

Thursday’s hearing is seen by some as a test of Pope Francis, who has enjoyed widespread popularity and made big promises, and of whether he can make amends on the issue of sexual abuse and allegations of cover-up.

Francis has called for openness and transparency on the issue of priest sex abuse. In December, he established a committee to advise him on the subject. The Vatican had said the committee would help protect children from pedophiles and better screen would-be priests, but some advocate groups dismissed it at the time as a publicity stunt.

Peter Saunders was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his Catholic priest at school, as was his brother Mike, for whom the abuse triggered a life marred by drinking and drugs, which led to an early death. 

Saunders runs the U.K.-based National Association for People Abused in Childhood, an organization helping other survivors. He said what victims want above anything else is certainty that what they suffered will not be faced by other people. 

"Most survivors are not particularly interested in compensation, they're interested in seeing change, they're interested in knowing that what happened to them is not going to happen to future generations," he told Al Jazeera. "Having said that, compensation, I think, is entirely appropriate when it comes to people whose childhoods have been stolen."

Ultimately, Saunders and other abuse victims want to see the Roman Catholic Church acknowledge wrongdoing. 

"I think if the institution acknowledges its many failings, then I, like many other people who suffered at its hands, I think, will ... have some form of closure and some means of perhaps moving on."

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press 

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