The Vatican came under blistering criticism from a UN committee for its handling of the global priest sex abuse scandal, facing its most intense public grilling to date over allegations it protected paedophile priests at the expense of victims.
The Vatican insisted it had little jurisdiction to sanction paedophile priests around the globe, saying it was for local law enforcement to do so. However, officials conceded more needs to be done and promised to build on progress already made to become a model for others, given the scale of the problem and the role the Holy See plays in the international community.
“The Holy See gets it,” said Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former sex crimes prosecutor. “Let’s not say too late or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently.”
He was responding to a grilling by the UN committee over the Holy See’s failure to abide by terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which calls for signatories to take all appropriate measures to keep children from harm. Critics allege that the Church enabled the rape of thousands of children by encouraging a culture of cover-up to defend its reputation.
Groups representing victims of clerical abuse, who have been active in civil litigation against the Church, gave the committee hundreds of pages of documents. The groups have welcomed the hearing as the first time the Vatican has had to publicly defend its record in what amounted to a courtroom cross-examination.
However, Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests president Barbara Blaine said the Vatican’s responses seem like “more of the same.”
The scene inside the conference room at UN headquarters in Geneva was remarkable by UN standards.
It also was remarkable by Vatican standards. Traditionally, the Holy See has insisted that the Vatican as an institution bore little or no responsibility for the problem, blaming scandals and cases on individual priests or their bishops over whom the Vatican has no real control.
While insisting on that legal separation, though, the Vatican did respond to questions about cases even where it had no jurisdiction or involvement, and often welcomed recommendations on ways to make children safer.
“I’m with you when you say: ‘All these nice words will not mean anything… if there is not more transparency and accountability on the local level’,” Msgr Scicluna told committee member Benyam Mezmur.
Msgr Scicluna has been credited even by victims with helping bring the Vatican around over the past decade, overhauling its internal norms to make it easier to defrock abusers and calling for greater accountability by bishops who allowed priests to roam free.
He said local criminal prosecutors must go after anyone — “whoever these people are” — who obstructs justice.
The committee’s main human rights investigator, Sara Oviedo, was particularly tough on the Vatican delegation.
Ms Oviedo, a sociologist from Ecuador, pressed the delegation on the frequent ways abusive priests were transferred rather than turned in to police. Given the Church’s “zero tolerance” policy, she asked, why were there “efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases?”
Committee members repeatedly asked the Holy See to provide data about the scale of the problem, but the Vatican deferred, saying it would consider the request.
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